When former TSA undercover agents learned that a passenger with a loaded handgun breezed past scanners at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and boarded a flight to Tokyo in 2019, they were not surprised.
They had done the same thing almost daily, posing as potential terrorists with fake guns and bombs to test security — and getting waived through disturbingly often, they told The Post.
The Tokyo-bound gunslinger didn’t turn out to be a threat, they said, but agents pointed to leaked data from TSA in 2015 and 2017 showing that attempts by their “Red Team” of covert agents to smuggle in weapons, explosives and banned objects succeeded sometimes up to 95 percent of the time.
And they said this could mean another 9/11 is possible, a warning that came as the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin Friday saying the 9/11 20th anniversary could spur extremist violence.
“The TSA didn’t learn from what happened before,” said former FAA Special Agent Brian Sullivan, telling The Post security failures exposed by the agency since then have opened the door to another.
“They’re making the same mistakes.”
His concern was seconded by ex-FAA and TSA Red Team leader Bogdan Dzakovic, who used to strap functional, hard-resin plastic guns to his ankle and tape fake explosives to his back — and got past airport security multiple times in the late 1990s.
“We basically got by them most of the time,” Dzakovic, now 67, told The Post from his home in Ohio. “Everyone knew how weak the system was. We knew something like 9/11 was going to happen.”
Dzakovic, who testified before Congress after the Sept. 11 terror attack about his work, and how his concerns were brushed aside, believes a similar event could happen again.
“It’s just a matter of time until we get hit again just like we did on 9/11,” Dzakovic said. “We don’t do jacks–t until someone gets killed. And the White House only cares about white supremacists now. It’s ludicrous.”
In fact, one of the most recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about the state of TSA covert testing stated that “this process has not yet resolved any identified security vulnerabilities.”
One high-ranking current TSA official said the huge reduction in air travel during the pandemic allowed agents to spend extra time checking bags and patting down passengers, and led to an increase in weapons being found and confiscated.
“We lost half our passengers, but as a result everything slowed down and more checks were done,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
“The firearm detection rate went up 200 percent last year. What that meant was we were sacrificing speed for security up until then. The weapons were there, we just were rushing people through and not finding them.”
In July 2019, TSA data shows 5.1 guns were seized per every million people searched, a number which jumped to 15.3 guns seized per million people, in July 2020 — while at the same time, the number of passengers dropped 75 percent.
The official added that those found carrying guns often are treated leniently.
“They say there will be a $10,000 fine if you get caught bringing a weapon through security but that’s BS. You get fined $50 tops,” he said.
“The TSA is a 70,000-person bureaucracy that cares more about making sure I don’t carry more than three ounces of Grecian Formula than they are in preventing or anticipating the next terrorist attack,” said Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant with 40 years of experience.
“The bosses care about politics, not people.”
Boyd worries about screening lapses involving cargo handling and food-service providers.
“No one’s checking,” Boyd said.
“There may be another 9/11 but it won’t necessarily look like 9/11,” he said. “You need to be looking at cargo, the catering trucks, where the fuel is coming from.”
Mary Schiavo, an aviation security expert and the former Inspector General of the Dept. of Transportation — which oversaw the FAA in the 1990s — said a big concern is the threat of unmanned drones or electromagnetic pulse weapons to disrupt cockpit operations.
“The TSA needs very smart young people savvy about artificial intelligence who understand this new technology and can get out in front of it to stop terrorists,” she said. “But my experience with the TSA is they’re reactive, not proactive.”
One simple fix that hasn’t been adopted involves installing an extra barrier between the cockpit and passenger cabin, a proposal that airlines have lobbied against.
“For 20 years we’ve been waiting for that secondary barrier,” Sullivan said.
All while insiders have become alarmed over the potential of terrorism from Afghanistan, which some say has been downplayed under President Biden.
“I’m worried we’ve taken our eyes off overseas terrorism when we need to be focusing on it most,” former U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told The Post.
“Our presence in Afghanistan meant we had eyes and ears on Pakistan which has nuclear weapons that we need to monitor carefully. We’re losing all that.”