personnel at Dulles seen as risk
Daniel F. Drummond
More than 80 percent of the
departure-gate screeners and baggage handlers at Washington
Dulles International Airport are not U.S. citizens, which
makes completing full background checks on them difficult,
according to Kenneth M. Meade, inspector general of the
Department of Transportation.
At recent congressional
hearings, Mr. Meade also testified that "non-U.S.
citizens without proper" immigration status by the U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) "were
authorized to enter secured areas of Dulles."
"Say someone is from
Somalia, and they may be a wonderful person, but they have
just been through a war and they don't have records,"
said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican. "How am I
going to do the background check? The records are destroyed,
you just can't do it."
Mr. Wolf, one of several House
Republicans seeking to federalize security and baggage
screeners, said the public is at risk because proper
background checks are not being done. He said the Justice
Department should handle airport security.
He said the need for a federal
takeover of airport security can be seen clearly in the
Justice Department's recent finding that Argenbright Security
Inc. of Atlanta had hired screeners with criminal records and
did not perform proper background checks.
Argenbright, one of the nation's
largest airport-security companies, provides all of the
passenger security and most of the baggage handling at Dulles.
It also provides security screeners for some parts of Ronald
Reagan Washington National Airport.
Last year, Argenbright paid $1.5
million in fines and other costs associated with its failure
to perform background checks on its employees. Between 1995
and 1998, Argenbright hired more than 1,300 untrained
screeners at Philadelphia International Airport.
Argenbright officials yesterday
did not return calls seeking comment.
The Senate last week unanimously
approved an airport security bill that includes a provision
for federalizing airport security workers. A similar bill has
stalled in the House because of Republican concern about
federalizing the screeners.
Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia
Democrat, said the hiring of foreign nationals does not
provide the proper security needed.
"It's too important of a
function not to have a higher quality work force," Mr.
Mr. Moran said he does not want
anyone who can legally work in the country to be out of a job,
but part of the problem is that the low pay offered by the
security companies — $5.15 to $7 an hour to start —
usually attracts "the lowest common denominator" of
the work force who lack the skills needed for sensitive
David Barnes, a spokesman for
Mr. Meade, said it is a "significant concern" that
foreign nationals who have criminal records or are not in the
country legally are able to get high-level security clearances
More disconcerting, however, is
that security companies are not following regulations already
in place that require background checks, he said.
Scott Brenner, a spokesman for
the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said his agency has
concerns about the high number of foreign nationals working as
security guards. "It's very difficult to do background
checks on people who are not American citizens because they
have not been in the country that long," he said.
Mr. Brenner said the FAA does
require that criminal background checks be done on potential
employees, but it is up to the private security firm to
perform them. Some companies will cut corners by not
performing the checks just to get "a body" that can
fill a job slot, he said, because the labor market is tight
for low-wage jobs.
The airlines, which are tasked
with contracting with the security agencies, he said,
"are looking at the bottom line."
The FAA, Mr. Brenner said, has
begun auditing background checks at major airports across the
country, including Dulles. The audits will make sure the
security screeners were hired in accordance with FAA standards
and that criminal background checks were performed on each
Dulles has 33 airlines; and
United Airlines, the airport's largest carrier, is responsible
for issuing the contract with Argenbright, said Tara Hamilton,
a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Airports
Authority. United officials did not return repeated phone
calls seeking comment.
At Reagan Airport, three
different firms including Argenbright — each employed by
different airlines — operate security screening at the four
terminals, Miss Hamilton said.
Federalizing security screeners
and baggage handlers may not necessarily be the answer, said
Sen. George F. Allen, Virginia Republican.
Instead of transferring 28,000
private jobs to the federal bureaucracy, Mr. Allen suggests
putting airport security under the U.S. Marshal Service or the
Justice Department and having the federal government oversee
and pay security workers while outsourcing the contracts.
Tough new standards should also
be in place so criminals, not just foreign nationals with
checkered pasts, can never work as security screeners or
baggage handlers, he said.
"I don't think the federal
government should hire anybody who they can't do a criminal
background check on," Mr. Allen said.
"It doesn't mean you can't
work, but that you can't work for airport security. If you set
a higher standard these people, [criminals] would wash
out," he said.