The terrifying skies, continued

The same day Attorney General John Ashcroft blasts a leading airport security firm for hiring unqualified workers, the GOP insists on the private enterprise status quo.

Published October 13, 2001 7:11PM (EDT)

On Thursday, one month after four hijacked airplanes turned the world upside down, a unanimous Senate passed a $2 billion airline-security program that would federalize passenger screening and place armed marshals on hundreds of flights.

Good news for passengers and the public, right? Not according to House Republicans. While Congress has demonstrated remarkable unity in voting for the bombing of Afghanistan and for Attorney General John Ashcroft's wiretap wish list, an overhaul of the nation's notoriously lax and haphazard airline security system -- the single intervention most likely to impede future hijackings -- still seems a long way off. That's because Republicans in the House have their own, radically different idea: Let the private contractors who have delivered us the current system keep the job.

Republican Whip Tom DeLay has vowed to block any airline security bill that puts federal officers instead of private contractors at the departure gate. And on Friday afternoon, he and other GOP leaders in the House went so far as to urge President Bush to short-circuit the unamimous vote of the Senate with an executive order keeping airport security in private hands. The request came even as Ashcroft announced the criminal indictment of one leading airport passenger-screening contractor, Securicor, for hiring security guards with extensive criminal records in defiance of a previous federal order.

Just hours after the Senate vote in favor of airline security, the only voices a squabbling Congress seemed to be hearing on the subject appeared to be their own -- and those of influential lobbyists hired by the contractors in a desperate bid to keep their franchise.

Here is another voice Congress ought to be listening to. Call him Jaime. He is not the kind of person who usually gets invited to testify on Capitol Hill. But when it comes to airline security, Jaime is an expert.

"When I worked at Logan Airport, I always said something terrible was going to happen," Jaime says, and then repeats himself several times for emphasis. "Security was so lax. So lax."

Jaime cannot reveal his real name because he holds the kind of job where a reputation as a whistleblower could make him unemployable. He was hired as an airport security guard at Boston's Logan Airport in 1995. His employer was the giant corporation Servicemaster, whose aviation division holds contracts with more than 30 major airports for custodial service and security. Jaime left Servicemaster and Logan several years ago, when he was offered a better paying and less monotonous job. But the attacks of Sept. 11 brought the experience of his former employment rushing back.

Then, as now, at Logan -- and other airports -- security was provided through a hodgepodge of private contractors hired by airlines, and overseen by a political appointee of the Massachusetts governor. Some contracts go to uniformed security companies -- Burns International Services holds one for Logan, as does Securicor -- and some are held by general maintainence companies like Servicemaster, whose employees sometimes alternate between monitoring the departure-gate metal detectors and picking up garbage.

When Servicemaster hired Jaime to screen passengers at Logan, he had no background in law enforcement or security. The pay was $5 per hour. Training? "Ten minutes -- they checked us out on the X-ray." Background check? " We were asked if we had any current warrants or charges pending." (If the Justice Department's indictment of Securicor is any indication, such scant scrunity is typical of airline security conractors.) Jamie's job? Watching X-ray machines, collecting impermissible weaponry and patting down passengers.

It was a deadening shift in the company of other minimum-wage guards. "You would go to work already in uniform -- there were not even lockers for the workers. You would go to your station and just stand there." He would "stand there" for eight hours with a half-hour break for lunch and two 10-minute coffee breaks, squinting at X-ray machines and an endless parade of passengers. "By the end of the day, it was inevitable that you would miss things," Jaime says.

Indeed, on several occasions during Jaime's shifts, FAA inspectors ran dummies with hidden weapons through the metal detectors, and sent through undercover inspectors with contraband. "They got right through," says Jaime. His memory jibes with FAA reports, cited in the Boston Globe, that security screeners at Logan have over the last several years routinely missed pipe bombs, guns and other test items carried by FAA inspectors.

The job had its entertaining moments. There was a bantering conversation with Jerry Garcia, a sighting of Dustin Hoffman. There was the time Jaime got to pat down Lee Iacocca. But in retrospect -- and particularly in light of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks -- what still shocks Jaime is the broad airport access given him and other untrained, minimum-wage guards.

"My first day on the job, they gave me a ramp pass. You know what that means? I could go anywhere in the airport. The tarmac. The conning tower. The baggage areas. The VIP lounges."

This was a privilege of Jaime's fellow guards, who he describes as a decidedly mixed lot. One, he says, was an apparent drug addict. "He'd show up to work shaking from booze and drugs, and sometimes disappear for 10 or 20 minutes at a time to get well." This particular employee's specialty, says Jaime, was shaking down Caribbean immigrants who would come through with suitcases of Rolex knock-offs and other items to sell back home. He'd threaten to turn them into Customs until they handed over some goods, says Jaime. If passengers complained, he adds, "one of us would pretend to be his supervisor. 'Don't worry, ma'am,' we'd say. 'We've had our eyes on him for a long time. This is probably his last day.' Yeah, right."

The picture Jaime paints would be laughable if it were not, in the wake of Sept. 11 and in the midst of war, so terrifying. Why would House Republicans -- with the tacit approval of the Bush White House -- want to keep airport security in the same hands?

Start with campaign contributions -- the conventional currency of Washington supposedly set aside in a national crisis -- and consider, for starters, Jaime's old employer at Logan, Servicemaster, based in Downers Grove, Ill. According to federal campaign finance records, in the 2000 election alone, Servicemaster's corporate PAC gave more than $30,000 to Republican congressional candidates and committees -- and just $5,000 to Democrats. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Tom DeLay and other top Republicans are among the beneficiaries, each having received the maximum contribution allowable under law.

The new Airline Security Association -- formed to lobby for keeping airport screening in private hands -- is similarly well-connected. Its lobbyists include Kenneth Quinn, the top FAA lawyer in the previous Bush administration.

Compared with that kind of clout, a security guard like Jaime doesn't count for much. Neither, apparently, does a Justice Department indictment. And if the scant federal oversight given airport security over many years is any indication, neither do passengers.

You'd think public safety would trump politics as usual after Sept. 11. But you'd be wrong.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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