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TSA screeners put inspection notices in bags they didn't inspect

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 7:58 PM EDT, Tue October 9, 2012
An investigation found bags that were never checked went through Honolulu International Airport with inspection notices.
An investigation found bags that were never checked went through Honolulu International Airport with inspection notices.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A whistle-blower came forward with video showing some TSA officers skirting procedures
  • The video triggered two investigations
  • Thirty-six screeners at Honolulu International Airport were fired last year
  • Lawmakers say the problem is bigger than screeners at just one airport

Washington (CNN) -- Which would bother you more?

1) Finding a notice in your luggage saying it was searched by federal authorities? Or, 2) Finding an inspection notice, but learning that no one had actually bothered to search it?

It was the second scenario that led to last year's firing of 36 Transportation Security Administration screeners at Honolulu International Airport.

The Department of Homeland Security's independent inspector general announced Tuesday that a whistle-blower triggered investigations when he came forward with video showing some TSA officers skirting procedures.

"Among other things, the (video showed screeners) opening bags, placing notices of inspection inside and transporting them back to the airline without screening them," read a report from the inspector general.

Thousands of bags went on commercial jets unscreened, risking the safety of the traveling public, the report said.

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The video, shot in the overseas terminal at the Honolulu airport in December 2010, resulted in two investigations. The first, by the TSA's Office of Inspection, concluded that thousands of bags went unscreened between September and December 2010. The TSA fired 36 officers, including the highest-ranked TSA official at the airport, and disciplined a dozen others.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill requested the second investigation, which was conducted by the inspector general, to see if the blame extended beyond officials in Honolulu.

The inspector general's investigation concluded that while screeners in Honolulu were responsible for screening bags, the situation "might not have occurred" if TSA leaders had provided better oversight, adequate staff and screening equipment, and had more thoroughly evaluated protocols before changing them.

The inspector general said the agency should have tested protocols at large airports, instead of just small airports, before implementing them. And it said that since the TSA granted flexibility to screeners during busy, crunch periods, screeners "could have inferred" that alternate procedures were acceptable at all times.

The TSA protested the conclusions.

"The manner in which (protocols) were developed had nothing to do with the (Honolulu) officer's failure to properly follow" procedures, the TSA said in a prepared statement. "TSA's investigation revealed that Checked Baggage Screening SOP violations became almost normal practice ... and at times some (Honolulu) officers were not screening any bags at all."

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday sided with the inspector general, saying the report showed flaws that extended beyond Honolulu.

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"This report and one TSA fiasco after another have demonstrated that this isn't the problem of a few bad apples. There are system-wide problems with this massive bureaucracy," Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, said in a written statement.

Wrote Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi: "I am concerned that there is a disconnect between our TSOs (screeners) on the frontline and those at TSA headquarters who create policy and protocols."

In its statement, the TSA said it took actions to address the problems. It has conducted a review of supervisors' job duties, launched a new training course for supervisors and will work to create protocols to use when modifying standard operating procedures. It also has begun to develop measures to evaluate the supervision of checked baggage areas, it said.

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