Q&A on AP investigation of perimeter security at US airports

(AP) – The squeeze began after The Associated Press revealed that intruders hop fences, slip past guardhouses and crash cars through gates at the nation’s busiest airports far more often than the public realizes. Since publication of that investigation last spring, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has clamped down on the release of information about airport perimeter breaches. But using litigation and public records requests, the AP is now able to document 345 breaches dating to 2004 at 31 major U.S. airports, including dozens of previously undisclosed incidents. Due to secrecy, that is still an undercount. Here are some questions and answers on AP’s reporting:

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR THE PUBLIC TO KNOW ABOUT AIRPORT INTRUDERS?

Exposing security breaches informs the public, lawmakers and in some cases airport authorities themselves about potentially dangerous vulnerabilities that need attention. The goal is oversight and accountability.

WHAT HAS CHANGED IN THE PAST YEAR?

When AP first began asking airports for details of breaches, some balked since TSA had distributed a warning about such media requests. After AP argued that many details were not sensitive, TSA drew up guidance that said dates, descriptions and some other details about breaches could be safely disclosed. Nearly all airports began cooperating and released records. This year, TSA changed its standards. Details and video surveillance materials that were freely disclosable became sensitive security information. The TSA also began saying that some incidents in which intruders got deep into an airport’s secure area should not be counted as breaches.

WHY IS TSA LIMITING INFORMATION?

TSA would not answer detailed written questions about its change of position. Instead, spokesman Richard Ades sent a written statement that said, in part, “The serious nature of the current daily threat to global aviation, by an enemy that is determined to attack us, demands that we be judicious in releasing information that our enemies could exploit.”

HOW MUCH INFORMATION RELEASED?

That’s inconsistent. At San Francisco International Airport, Adriana Anabela Monterroso-Santos walked around a vehicle exit gate and onto the tarmac on March 11, 2015; an air traffic controller saw her waving her arms, which she later explained as an attempt to hitch a ride back to Guatemala. This spring, airport officials would not discuss the year-old case. When AP requested an incident report, the airport sent a document with all details blacked out . Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said TSA had determined that any details — even the date — would be sensitive security information. However, under a separate Freedom of Information Act request, the TSA’s Washington, D.C. office provided AP with an internal document which, despite some redactions, detailed the incident. And then there was local law enforcement’s incident report . When AP received it, only the personal details of one witness had been blacked out.

HAVE SOME AIRPORTS RELEASED A LOT?

Some airports serving cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Jose, California, cooperated. Two other airports asked for information back, saying they sent too much. On April 20, San Francisco officials requested that AP “return or destroy all documents inadvertently provided” in response to a public records act request, including an email in which an airport attorney advised staff not to write anything about their communications with TSA “because it could be disclosable.” In another email, airport officials discussed 27 “events” during 2015 that fell into the categories “contained” ”delayed resolution/no threat” and “breach.” Spokesman Doug Yakel said airport staff identified five incidents as potential perimeter security breaches in 2015. He would not discuss why the other 22 were eliminated.

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