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Airport insecurity

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What exactly can you sneak past airport security screeners these days? In North Carolina, the last six months have provided some interesting answers.

A prosthetic breast? No. A cancer survivor who'd had a mastectomy was recently groped to tears by Transportation Security Administration screeners at Charlotte Douglas International after her false breast showed up on airport security "nudie" scanners.

A 6-year-old? No. A local father watched helplessly recently as his kid's groin was groped, and the kid boarded the plane in tears at Charlotte's airport.

A wheelchair or a hip implant? Nope and nope.

How about 60 guns? Sure. No problem. Steven Greenoe, 37, smuggled them past airline security at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on 10 separate outgoing flights last year. He was finally busted not by airline security here, but in England, where guns are banned but fetch a high price on the black market (where he ultimately sold them). Oops.

How about a teenager? Again, no problem. Delvonte Tisdale, 16, somehow breached airport security at Charlotte Douglas last year and stowed away in the wheel well of a jet that then took off. They found his lifeless body in a neighborhood along the plane's flight path in Boston.

All of this is ultimately the responsibility of the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, led by Janet Napolitano.

"Clearly if someone, a 16-year-old, is able to circumvent standards and requirements and get into the wheel well of a plane, there has been a breakdown," Napolitano said at a hearing last week.

No kidding. Napolitano spent last week warning the public that we now face the highest terror threat level since 9/11. Given that, if I were her, figuring out how Tisdale breached security and fixing the gaping holes in the system would be on my top 10 priority list.

Incredibly, Napolitano couldn't answer basic questions about the status of the investigation into the Tisdale security breach. Democratic Rep. William Keating of Massachusetts, the only person who appears to genuinely care about the situation, walked away from a congressional hearing last week frustrated that he couldn't get straight answers.

Keating asked Napolitano if the investigation was complete, if anything had been done by Homeland Security to secure airports' tarmacs around the country in light of the Tisdale "breakdown" and what other agencies Homeland Security was working with.

Napolitano dodged his questions, saying she suspected that security had been improved by the agency she runs, but that she'd have to get back to him on that. That Napolitano couldn't answer such a basic question is astounding.

Then Keating asked U.S. National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, the other government official at the hearings, if he was aware of the Tisdale incident and whether his agency was doing anything about it.

Leitner said he had learned about it through press reports. He dodged the second question completely, never answering it.

Keating wasn't asking for sensitive national security details. He just wanted to know if anything was being done.

"I would have anticipated a response that said, given the time frame, something has already been under way to correct this," Keating told the Associated Press about the hearing with Napolitano and Leiter.

Keating of all people should be able to get those answers. He was the prosecutor on the Tisdale case until his election to Congress last fall. Beyond the fact that Tisdale never showed up on any of the airport perimeter videotape, Keating can't seem to get basic info about the case.

For Napolitano, a complete breakdown in airline security by her department is clearly not a top priority. If it were, she'd be conversant enough on it to answer basic questions about it. So what exactly does she spend her days thinking about, aside from what she is going to say in her next TV appearance?

If you can still get 60 guns and a teenage stowaway on a plane in America today, you've got to wonder whether what we think of as airport security is a bureaucratic mirage. Are the nudie scanners at the airport and the groping more about making fliers feel safe than about actually keeping them safe?

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