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The Battle for U.S. Airport Security
An Essay by NPR's Daniel Schorr

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Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr

Oct. 29, 2001 -- The war against terrorism has been -- let's face it -- not going so well. The origin of the anthrax letters remains elusive, Afghans have not been defecting in large numbers from the Taliban, the Northern Alliance has not been advancing and Osama bin Laden has not only not been rubbed out, but two of his leading foes, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdel Haq, have been.

But cheer up. The battle against SecuraCorp may yet be won. The British-owned SecuraCorp is one of three companies -- the others Dutch- and Swedish-owned -- that have dominated the scandalously inept airport security business in the United States.

SecuraCorp acquired the biggest American screening company, Argenbright Security, which was under constant government criticism for its shoddy work. Undercover tests showed that private screeners failed to spot more than 20 percent of potentially dangerous objects. Argenbright was fined $1.2 million for hiring convicted criminals, and it continued hiring screeners without checking their police records.

"The Republican leadership backed a bill that will leave President Bush with the option of contracting out to private screeners -- this, at a time when citizens were looking for some assurance about the safety of flying as Thanksgiving approached."

Daniel Schorr

After September 11th, minimum-wage contract screening would be the first thing to go, right? Wrong. The Senate voted unanimously to create a federal airport security force of 28,000. But the bill ran into trouble with the Republicans in the House -- maybe because GOP leaders objected in principle to creating a new contingent of civil servants, maybe because top Republicans had benefited from campaign contributions from the airport security lobby.

And so the Republican leadership backed a bill that will leave President Bush with the option of contracting out to private screeners -- this, at a time when citizens were looking for some assurance about the safety of flying as Thanksgiving approached. A Washington Post poll last month showed 82 percent of Americans favoring a federal takeover of airport screening. It now looks as though they may get their way.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey says he'll allow a vote this week on a version of the Senate bill, as well as the Republican bill. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said the president is not looking to veto an airline security bill.

And lest you think the airline security industry finally sees the handwriting on the wall, its executives say they may sue the government for lost investments.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.