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Airport security -- a work in progress

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From Wolf Blitzer Reports' Brian Todd in Washington:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Airtight security at airports has been a constant concern since September 11, 2001, and has ignited a debate that puts the Transportation Security Administration under constant scrutiny.

"Unfortunately our security is far from competent," Charles Slepian -- a security expert who once briefed the Senate Transportation Committee on airport security -- said as he went on the offensive recently on "Wolf Blitzer Reports."

Slepian said recent cancellations of flights into and out of the United States are emblematic of a system failure.

"It's when we cannot rely on our screening that we cancel flights," said Slepian.

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The TSA counters, saying most of the cancelled flights were leaving from airports overseas, where there are no U.S. federal screeners. Spokesman Mark Hatfield defends the TSA screeners.

"Our screeners go through a rigorous evaluation before they're even hired. Once they're hired, they go through an extraordinary amount of training," Hatfield said.

TSA officials admit to problems over the past two years. When it conducted background checks of screeners, some were discovered to have criminal records.

A recent internal report by the Department of Homeland Security said, "TSA allowed some screeners to work without first completing a criminal history records check, and retained others with adverse background checks for weeks or months ... "

"I can say very flatly that we've cleaned house and gotten caught up on those background checks that had been done improperly," said Hatfield.

And there's the controversy over a particular area at several airports -- the tarmac, where many mechanics, baggage-handlers, and caterers don't have to go through metal detectors. One critic calls it the "gaping hole" in airport security.

"The pilot is searched. The cabin crew is searched. The passengers are searched. Nine hundred thousand workers are not searched. And we are not dealing with that and TSA refuses to tell us why," said Slepian.

Hatfield's response: "The area that you're referring to, where technicians, mechanics, maintenance people, have tool belts, screwdrivers and hammers and -- What are you gonna search them for? The tools of the trade? ... It starts with doing a thorough background check on these employees. After 9/11 we, TSA, oversaw the fingerprinting of 1.3 million people in the first 12 months."

Now, nearly 30 months after September 11, improved airport security is still a work in progress.

The TSA also defends the besieged CAPPS-II system, the plan for computerized background screening of passengers that is behind schedule.

Officials say the system won't be pushed through until privacy concerns are addressed.

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