Undercover security tests at Hopkins produce mixed results

CLEVELAND (AP) - Despite the fact that many travelers still have questions about airport security, the federal government plans to cut 6,000 airport screening jobs nationwide -- that's 11 percent of the overall screening workforce.

The cutbacks come at a time when The Investigator, Tom Meyer, decided to test security at Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport.

Since 9/11, security at Hopkins has improved dramatically, with pre-board screeners confiscating a variety of potential weapons.

Consider the lapses in Hopkins security that 19 Action News exposed prior to 9/11.

An undercover Action News producer was able to get right next to a moving jet by accessing a runway using an unguarded road. In addition to that, he was able to slip by security with a wrench in his shoe and was able to hide a letter opener the size of a switchblade by using a wheelchair.

When confronted, angry authorities had no explanations.

"What do you guys think you're doing?" airport security official Norman Howard said at the time. "Get out of here."

Since then, higher paid and better trained federal screeners have taken over security checkpoints. The feds say that airport security is at its highest level in history.

19 Action News decided to find out firsthand.

The Investigator took a close look at the security risk posed by lead-lined film bags. 19 Action News producers placed cameras inside lead bags and packed them in their carryon luggage.

"When the bag goes through the X-ray, there's a big, black blob," former FAA security inspector Steve Elson said.

Elson was right. Action News ran it through the X-ray checkpoint at the Justice Center, and it was hard to tell what was inside the bag -- a bag that can easily hold a powerful pistol.

At Hopkins, 19 Action News' undercover checks produced mixed results. A screener noticed something suspicious in the carryon bag belonging to producer DaVida Plummer. The screener did well as both DaVida's bag and the camera were inspected.

On her return flight from Norfolk, Va., however, she says the screener wasn't nearly as thorough.

"The woman there found the bag, felt it, looked at it, turned it over, put it right in the suitcase, closed the suitcase and said, 'Ma'am, you're free to go,'" Plummer said. "She never opened the bag. She just never did."

Action News producer Dale Danczak also tested the system. Twice, an alert screener noticed the black blob, searched his bag and found the lead bag and camera. A different screener on a different day, however, never inspected the lead bag. He took Dale for his word and let him go through the checkpoint.

"He asked, 'Do you have a lead bag and possibly a camera in it?' and I said, 'Yes,'" Danczak said. "They never checked anything. I could have had anything in the bag."

The Transportation Security Administration said that screeners did their jobs exactly as trained. They called the Action News story "alarmist."

TSA gets upset with outsiders who investigate security -- people like Steve Elson. Elson says that federal screeners can do better.

"They're missing all kinds of things, and that's the frightening part," Elson said.

TSA says not to worry. They say that they routinely test the system themselves, and insist it's working and will only get better.