by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
House members said areas in airports before Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints need to be more secure in the wake of a shooting at the Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month.
The lawmakers were speaking at a hearing of the House Homeland Security transportation subcommittee on Thursday.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), said the Los Angeles airport shooting showed the areas of airports that are not behind TSA security checkpoint are vulnerable.
“The area prior to screening in an airport is a soft target where masses of people gather, much like a shopping mall or train station,” Hudson said. “This leaves airports open to virtually anyone who wants to enter, including someone who may have malicious intent.”
Hudson said the security of pre-TSA checkpoint areas typically falls on airports themselves.
But he added that lawmakers should consider making changes too.
“While it is the airport’s responsibility to provide security and law enforcement, we all know that there are unavoidable risks of being in public spaces in instances like this one,” Hudson said. “What’s important now is to identify whether there were unnecessary vulnerabilities that we can learn from. Did TSA and airport police have seamless communication? Are there resources that could be shifted around to create a more robust layer of security posture?
TSA agent Gerardo Hernandez was killed on Nov. 1 when a man with a rifle who was believed to be targeting the agency’s workers opened fire in an identification checking area of the Los Angeles airport.
Two other TSA agents were wounded in the shooting, and the agency’s officials said Hernandez was its first employee to die in the line of duty since it was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.
The chairman of the full Homeland Security Committee said he had questions about the immediate response of the Los Angeles airport police to the shooting.
“What this incident demonstrates, once again, is just how vulnerable the public spaces can be to those who wish to carry out such acts,” Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said.
“The swift response by local law enforcement is laudable,” McCaul continued. “However, there are still some unanswered questions about the shooting itself. A week after the incident took place, I was surprised to learn that the police officer assigned to patrol around the security checkpoint at LAX may not have been in the correct vicinity of the checkpoint to immediately respond when the shots were fired.”
McCaul said he thought the possible misplacement of airport police during the Los Angeles was “very significant.”
“While we have since been told the officer may have, in fact, been within the required three-minute radius of the checkpoint, this issue does raise new questions about the response protocols currently in place and how they work,” he said.
Democrats on the committee moved to defend the Los Angeles airport police personnel, saying that Congress should do more to increase the security of airport terminals.
“The LAX shooting incident raises two specific security concerns that I will highlight today,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said. “The first is the need for law enforcement officers to be stationed at passenger screening checkpoints. The second is a need for airport police to have access to airport security cameras.”
Waters said the problems with unsecured airport areas were raised before the Los Angeles airport shooting.
“Both of these issues were raised in a letter from the American Alliance of Airport Police Officers to TSA Administrator John Pistole on Sept. 28, 2012, more than 13 months before this tragic incident occurred,” she said.
“In a response dated Oct. 12, 2012, Administrator Pistole agreed that both of these issues merited further discussion.”
Pistole said agency workers’ response to the shooting should be applauded.
“I do want to commend the actions of the officers, the TSOs and others at the checkpoints that day for their actions in helping move passengers away from the point of danger,” he said.
“And in fact, the two officers who were injured, the Air Protection Officer Tony Grigsby, and then a screening training instructor, James Speer, were actually wounded because they probably stayed too long at the checkpoint helping an elderly gentleman away from the checkpoint,” Pistole continued. “And they were shot as they were leaving the checkpoint as the shooter came up onto that upper level there.”
Pistole said the TSA has been working with “airport law enforcement organizations around the country to deploy uniformed officers in and around checkpoints in a much more visible way” since the shooting.
He said the TSA has meet with “representatives from 30 different agencies” from the law enforcement and aviation industries to identify ways to boost the security of airport terminals.
“We convened a meeting at TSA headquarters … basically to listen, to hear their views on what may happen, or what may be some of the solutions as we look forward,” he said. “So that review is ongoing and I look forward to updating the committee, and obviously getting input from all of the committee on possible steps that we can take.”