When Subash Gurung slipped past airport security in Chicago carrying seven knives and a stun gun, the 27-year-old Nepalese national, in the country on an expired student visa, seemed almost too outrageous a caricature of recently exposed lapses and failings of U.S. immigration policy and airport security.
The incident would lead Americans to think that despite claims to the contrary in the post-Sept. 11 era of homeland security, it is business as usual aboard U.S. airlines.
In fact, it is business as usual, because Congress has yet to enact airport security legislation. The bill has been snagged on one key issue: whether or not baggage screeners should become federal employees. The Senate unanimously passed a bill that would federalize all baggage screeners; the House version, passed 286 to 139, allows an option for privatized screeners as well as federally employed screeners.
Opponents of federalization claim that the establishment of a new federal bureaucracy of government employees would not improve safety, primarily because the job protections of civil service employees — they basically cannot be fired — would remove all accountability from their positions.
There is also reason to believe that these new employees would not be the highly trained, professional-law-enforcement types proponents of federalization would have us believe. The Senate legislation would set baggage screening salaries at just $25,000, hardly commensurate with that image.
However, those who would keep security privatized — namely, House Republicans — have to hurdle the dismal track record private security companies, which currently handle airport security, have so far amassed — an obstacle that seems to grow more formidable each day.
In the weeks since Sept. 11, the public has learned that the nation's largest airport security firm, Argenbright Security, Inc., was convicted last year of performing inadequate employee background checks, hiring airport workers with serious criminal records — including such crimes as burglary, assault, forgery, prostitution and drug offenses — and then attempting to cover up the violations by falsifying records and making false statements to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The penalty, three years of probation and a $1.55 million fine, was not enough to compel the company to clean up its act. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, which prosecuted the case, dragged the company back into court last month for violating its probation. Last Saturday, Argenbright employees failed to stop the man with the seven knives. Argenbright controls 40 percent of the market. Could there be a better rebuttal against the argument for privatization?
Foxnews.com attempted this week to determine why a firm like Argenbright would still be running airport security. What we discovered was a gaping void of oversight. Nobody is in charge. The airlines hire out these contracts to the lowest bidder; the airlines are the "nobody" who is in charge of security. The FAA does not have oversight over the security firms.
But we also discovered that the FAA was about to take over airport security from the airlines and enact sweeping reforms that would plug many of these holes when the hijackings occurred. Primarily, the rule would have required firms to obtain FAA certification in order to operate in airports, set rigid standards for certification, and empowered the FAA to revoke that certification. The rule was to be enacted the week after the attacks. The FAA tabled its plans when Congress stepped in.
Amid a round of buck-passing and finger-pointing, everyone — the FAA, the Department of Transportation, the airlines, and even Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge (based on statements he made Friday) — appear to be blaming, or at least waiting for, Congress.
So what's the deal with Congress?
Republicans claim that Senate Republicans actually favored the more flexible House plan, but — not wanting to appear to vote against airline safety legislation — were forced to support the Senate bill because Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle refused to give the Senate an option to vote on privatized screeners and allowed only one bill with no options to be placed to a vote.
Democrats have accused Republicans of opposing federalization because they fear doing so would create a large new unionized government workforce with a tendency to vote Democrat.
The partisan squabbling continued. Democrats were accused of pandering to the labor unions who contribute generously to the party. Republicans were criticized for caving into the corporate pressure exerted by the private security firms. And finally, Democrats were accused of selling out to the airlines, who want the government to assume all costs, liability and responsibility for security.
The solution to this lies somewhere in between. Congress could legislate standards private security firms must meet, it could legislate protections that would prevent airlines from awarding contracts to companies like Argenbright, or it could even legislate the provisions of the FAA rules that were never enacted.
President Bush, who has championed federal oversight and reportedly supports the House bill with its private/public options, has promised states more National Guardsmen to man their airports while the debate continues on Capitol Hill. The president is reportedly growing impatient with Congress, which may finally be yielding to public and political pressure to work out a compromise.
But all this leaves Americans boarding airplanes with no greater safety than they did on or before Sept. 11. That's unconscionable and inexcusable. Like the donors who gave to terrorist victim funds and then found out the money wasn't reaching the families, sloppy security was not what Americans believed they were promised when they answered the patriotic call to get back on airplanes and keep this massive American industry from going bankrupt. Each security violation is now both a violation of public trust and an affront to the memory of those passengers who died in the hijackings.
On Thursday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Congress was "wasting precious time."
Let's hope they act before we start wasting more precious lives.
Mark Fitzgibbons, a Washington attorney who writes about constitutional issues, contributed to this report.