David Simpson says agent went through airport scanners undetected

State Rep. David Simpson was interviewed by the Texas Tribune on Feb. 26, 2012 (Tribune video).

The legislative author of a 2011 proposal intended to prevent groping during Texas airport security checks questions whether the federal Transportation Security Administration is very good at checking if airline passengers are carrying weapons or other dangerous materials.

In a Jan. 26, 2012, interview, state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, told the Texas Tribune: "Five times last spring, a TSA undercover agent went through the scanners in (Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport) and was undetected."

We wondered about his reference to such scanners, which have drawn widespread attention.

An analysis accompanying Simpson’s unsuccessful legislation touches on why, saying that "concerned parties" say the scanners "virtually strip a person being scanned and can generate a nude image of the person's body. In addition to the potential for humiliation, these devices can bombard a traveler with radiation or radio waves, posing health risks. A traveler's only alternative to walking through the scanner is to allow a TSA employee to search the traveler's entire body, which may include reaching up under clothing and touching of the private parts of the body."

Nationally, the TSA says online, the agency began deploying state-of-the-art advanced imaging technology at checkpoints in 2007. "This technology can detect a wide range of threats to transportation security in a matter of seconds to protect passengers and crews," the agency says.

The agency says there are approximately 600 imaging technology units in place at more than 140 airports. And, TSA has said, its scanners have found more than 300 dangerous or illicit items -- everything from a loaded .380-caliber Ruger handgun to exotic snakes that a man tried to smuggle inside his pants, according to a Dec. 22, 2011, news article by ProPublica, an independent news outlet.

That article also quotes U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, saying that results of tests by the Government Accountability Office, not made public, showed that airport scanning equipment was "badly flawed" and "can be subverted."

"If we could reveal the failure rate," the story quotes Mica saying, "the American public would be outraged." The story further notes that how well the scanners detect dangerous items is difficult to assess since the government classifies detection rates of the devices, saying it doesn't want to give terrorists a sense of their chances of beating the system.

Back to Texas: Simpson’s administrative assistant, Michael Bullock, told us Simpson’s claim was based on a news article posted online Feb. 21, 2011 by KXAS-TV, Channel 5, in Fort Worth. That report -- dependent on an unidentified source -- states that an undercover TSA agent got through security at the DFW airport with a handgun during testing of enhanced-imaging body scanners. (By email, TSA spokesman Luis Casanova told us the airport has about 14 Advanced Image Technology machines in about 16 checkpoints in five terminals, all of them millimeter wave units that scan with electromagnetic waves.)

KXAS-TV’s report says the agent carried a pistol in her undergarments when she made it through the airport's body scanners every time she tried. Government agents who failed to spot the gun on the scanned image went undisciplined, the story says.

Reporter Grant Stinchfield opened the televised version of his report, dated Feb. 18, 2011, by saying the airport’s body scanners are touted by the TSA as the latest, most effective layer of security to stop a potential threat from boarding an airliner.

Next, Stinchfield cited the anonymous source, saying: "Yet a high-ranking, long-time reliable source with direct access to the TSA’s latest covert testing out at DFW tells us an undercover agent with a firearm hidden in her undergarments made it through the five body scanners she put to the test at DFW without ever being detected." In the report, Stinchfield said the testing had taken place the previous weekend. He also said the TSA did not deny the results as he reported them, though it also told him it did not comment on such tests.

We contacted the station, whose executive editor of content, Shannon Hammel, declined to identify the report’s source. "That is a (reliable) source we have used in the past," Hammel said.

The reporter, Stinchfield, who no longer works for the station, likewise declined to identify the source. Of late, he is a businessman and Republican candidate for the U.S. House seat held by Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell.

In a telephone interview, Stinchfield also noted that as KXAS-TV reported on Jan. 19, 2012, a female passenger later slipped through an airport security checkpoint with a gun. According to the station’s news account, the gun was spotted in a security image of the handbag after Judith Kenney had recovered the bag and started walking toward a flight to Houston. Kenney, the story says, was pulled off the flight after the plane was called back to its departure gate. Kenney’s attorney, David Finn, was quoted as saying that Kenney had accidentally forgotten she had the gun in her bag.

The TSA’s Casanova responded to our queries about the reported tests behind Simpson’s claim by noting the agency’s original statement to the station: "Our security officers are one of the most heavily tested federal workforces in the nation. We regularly test our officers in a variety of ways to ensure the effectiveness of our technology, security measures and the overall layered system. For security reasons, we do not publicize or comment on the results of covert tests," the statement says. However, it continues, "advanced imaging technology is an effective tool to detect both metallic and nonmetallic items hidden on passengers."

In the end, unfortunately, we could not confirm or refute the TV station’s report, which was the basis of Simpson’s claim. But we’re not comfortable judging a claim entirely based on anonymous sourcing. We’re leaving Simpson’s claim unrated.