The Federal Aviation Administration, well aware that the nation's airport security needed an overhaul, was poised even before Sept. 11 to enact strict new rules for private contractors that provide that security. Then, Congress got involved.

The rules, set to take effect the week after the terrorist hijackings, would have put the FAA in charge of security at airports instead of airlines. It might also have prevented the sort of security lapses that have popped up in recent days by allowing the agency to crack down on companies like Argenbright Security, Inc. — the nation's largest airport security provider and, according to prosecutors, one of its worst offenders.

But the rules are on hold while Congress wrangles with whether baggage screeners should become federal employees.

"We're waiting to see what they do," said Rebecca Trexler, a spokeswoman for the FAA.

Argenbright employees were screening luggage last weekend when a 27-year-old Nepalese man slipped through checkpoints carrying seven knives, a stun gun and a can of mace at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Seven employees were suspended following the incident.

Argenbright, which controls 40 percent of the airport security market, was already on probation for extensive safety violations. The company has a history that includes an October, 2000 conviction for what the U.S. Attorney's office in Philadelphia called an "astonishing pattern of crimes that potentially jeopardized public safety" at Philadelphia International Airport.

The company was fined $1.55 million and given three years probation for offenses that included performing inadequate employee background checks and hiring airport workers with serious criminal records. It stands accused of attempting to cover up the violations by falsifying records and making false statements to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Last month, the U.S. Attorney's office accused the company of violating its probation at 13 major airports by failing to conduct the proper background checks on employees and hiring people with records of assault, prostitution, burglary, forgery, retail theft and drug offenses.

In the plea agreement for violating its probation, Argenbright was forced only to extend that probation by an additional two years. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Pease said the court could not impose additional fines because Argenbright had already paid the maximum fines allowed under the law.

Why Argenbright continues to run security at the nation's airports is a question a lot of people are asking. Few have answers, though, and the best one to surface so far is that nobody appears to be in charge of the nation's airport screening operations.

Under the current system, airlines bid out the security contracts to companies over which the FAA has no oversight. Prosecutors fare only slightly better, says Pease. They can get involved only when companies attempt to lie about violations. The violations themselves are not a crime.

The new rules the FAA was about to enact before Congress stepped in would have plugged some of these holes. The rules would have required security firms to earn FAA certification, and given the agency the power to revoke that certification for violations and infractions. It would also have upped the amount of training required of screening employees.

Under the rules, baggage screeners also would have been continuously monitored by high-tech "TIP" software that projects simulated images of weapons and other illegal contraband into bags passing through X-ray machines and then records whether the screener "caught" the item. The data are used by the FAA to impose penalties on security companies that fail to do their job.
 
"We had wanted to implement this rule," Trexler said. "Certainly, if a company could lose its certification to do business, that would be a serious penalty."

But that was before Sept. 11; now, passenger safety is taking a backseat to finger-pointing.

Asked to comment on why Argenbright continues to operate in the nation's airports, the FAA and the DOT put much of the blame on the airlines; the airlines are not commenting on Argenbright's record, but are instead pushing for an all-out federal takeover of the security system; and everyone is blaming Congress.