Anatomy of an airport security breach

A security breach at a TSA checkpoint led to the brief closure of a terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday.

Story highlights

  • Newark International Airport terminal was shut down for two hours following a security breach
  • Traveler left security checkpoint with bag that had been flagged by TSA screeners
  • Two days earlier, a security scare was reported at New York LaGuardia airport

By all accounts, it started innocently. An airport screener missed a bag.

But by the time it was over, authorities had shut down an airport terminal for two hours, airlines delayed almost a dozen flights and scores of air travelers probably were wondering whether they should have taken the train.

The shutdown of the A-2 terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday is probably typical in many ways. But a Port Authority police report gives a detailed account of the breach, the TSA's response, and some of the behind-the-scenes confusion that led to the two-hour closure.

The mistake

It happened at 11:04 a.m. According to the TSA, an X-ray machine detected a suspicious object in a bag, and a screener was told to conduct a hand search. But, for reasons still unclear, before the officer turned his or her attention to the task, the passenger left the checkpoint, along with the bag.

The Port Authority Police Department report gives a slightly different account. It says the TSA screener picked up and screened the wrong bag.

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When the mistake was discovered shortly thereafter, the traveler had already left the checkpoint, and the screener could not describe the passenger.

    Authorities shut down the checkpoint, and a breach of security was issued, the Port Authority report says.

    The response

    At 11:18 a.m., TSA screeners looked at recordings captured by the closed circuit television cameras. They told police they figured out who the unidentified passenger was. They gave police a description of a black female traveling with a black male. But when the two travelers were located and rescreened, it was found that they were not the folks involved in the breach.

    The confusion

    The TSA then gave a description of a tall black male carrying a black laptop bag, according to the police report. That person was also found, and ruled out.

    "This process continued three more times," the police report says. Police found, and then ruled out, a white woman traveling with two children in a stroller, a 6-foot white male wearing a brown shirt and jeans and carrying a suitcase, and a white male with curly brown hair wearing a JetBlue uniform.

    After the fifth false identification, authorities ordered the terminal area shut down and cleared. All passengers, flight crews and employees were told to leave for rescreening.

    The end

    At 12:22 p.m., more than an hour into the incident, a screener stopped a female JetBlue employee believed to be the owner of the bag. Upon rescreening, it was determined that her bag was allowed to pass through security unchecked. But because of the lapse of time, and the possibility she could have taken contraband into the secure side of the checkpoint, officers continued with their inspection of the area and its occupants. They reopened the checkpoint about 1 p.m.

    But wait! There's a twist.

    While Port Authority Police Department union representatives complained that the incident was an example of TSA incompetence, a TSA official, speaking on background, said other factors may vindicate the agency. The TSA said that a woman they identified early in the incident twice denied being the woman with the suspicious bag. The woman's repeated denials prompted them to focus on other individuals, prolonging the incident.

    The woman may have denied having the bag, the TSA official speculated, because she had purchased some perfume in a duty-free shop, and did not have the liquid in the required one-quart plastic bag.

    The TSA official acknowledged the theory was speculative, but said the TSA hopes to learn more in a "hot wash" or review of the incident.

    The consequences

    Wednesday's breach occurred just two days after a TSA miscommunication resulted in a scare at nearby LaGuardia airport. In that incident, a screener removed two suspicious objects from a traveler's bag, determined that they were not explosive, but placed them aside. When a later shift arrived, they feared the devices were pipe bombs and called police.

    "Unfortunately, these glaring TSA security failures at our nation's busiest airports continue to undermine security, which imperils and needlessly inconveniences the traveling public," Paul Nunziato, president of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association, said in a statement to CNN. "It is a shame these security breaches have become daily events."

    Nunziato said that the "astonishing number of TSA security failures" has led airport police organizations to ask Congress to create uniformed standards for airport security.

    "Until Washington acts to mandate these reforms, this game of Russian Roulette will continue," he said.

    Responded TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein: "We screen nearly 2 million passengers a day and we are always looking for ways to improve and strengthen our processes."

    Farbstein said the TSA is conducting a thorough review of the incident to see why the suspicious bag was not "picked up and inspected right away."