Homeland Security to investigate whether airport screeners are tipped off about covert testing

Homeland Security inspector general Richard Skinner has launched a probe into whether security screeners at six airports have cheated on covert tests run by undercover agents trying to sneak weapons through checkpoints. He is investigating whether screeners were tipped off about surprise checks that determine how effectively airport workers find guns, bombs and knives. Screeners who fail the tests are required to undergo remedial training

The investigation comes following secret reports that screeners at airports in San Francisco and Jackson, Mississippi, were told in advance of undercover tests in 2003 and 2004. Skinner is investigating whether screeners at other airports too received tip-offs in advance about covert testing. Skinner has selected several airports for the investigation, which should be finished by December.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which employs airport screeners as well as the agents who run undercover tests, said it would cooperate with the investigation.

A report from Skinner's office found that fellow TSA employees at the airport tipped off screeners in Jackson in February 2004. Screeners were told about the gender and race of the TSA agents, the type of weapons they were trying to get past screeners and where the weapons were hidden in checked and carry-on bags.

The tip-off came from Jackson screeners who were temporarily assigned to other airports and saw the covert agents there in early 2004. The covert teams went on to test screeners in Jackson.

The TSA has since changed procedures. Undercover teams no longer test several airports in the same vicinity at around the same time. The findings could undermine confidence in aviation security. The TSA says covert testing is very important, and that the ability of screeners to find weapons needs to be tested periodically.

At San Francisco, TSA officials and an airport security company tracked undercover agents with surveillance cameras and tipped off screeners before the agents arrived at checkpoints. The tip-offs were organised in 2003-04 by the TSA's second-in-command in San Francisco after local news reporters ran a series of covert security tests at the airport.