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Logan screeners fail weapons tests

Five undercover agents of the US Department of Homeland Security posing as passengers last week carried weapons through several security checkpoints at Logan International Airport without being detected, officials confirmed yesterday.

George Naccara, federal security director at Logan Airport, acknowledged that certain "prohibited items" were carried past the federal screeners hired to improve airport security after Sept. 11, 2001. A homeland security official who asked not to be identified also confirmed the breaches.

Neither would specify the items smuggled past the screeners, but a source who works in security at Logan said the undercover agents, who work for the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, brought knives, a bomb, and a gun in carry-on baggage through several checkpoints at different terminals without being stopped.

A pocket knife set off alarms at one checkpoint, the source said. It was concealed inside an agent's pants, hanging by a string behind his zipper. The screeners wrongly believed it was the zipper that had set off the alarms.

Officials at Logan, the Transportation Security Administration, and the contractor in charge of security at the nation's airports downplayed the breaches and said they were helpful in spotting holes in airport security.

But the fact that such weapons made it past checkpoints two years after an overhaul of airport security is likely to be seen as a serious indictment of the government's efforts to protect air travel from terrorists.

"President Bush has promised again and again that Homeland Security is his top domestic priority," said state Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety. "Two years after Sept. 11, at the very airport where two of those planes left, for this to be possible is profoundly disturbing. It is an embarrassment."

The tests at Logan were part of a federal probe at about 15 major airports.

The results are expected to be presented to Congress some time in the next several months.

At Logan last week, several screeners involved in the lapses were ordered to receive "remedial training," the source who works at the airport said.

One of the screeners who failed to find a gun in a bag was a supervisor, the source said.

Naccara would not confirm the remedial training but said a number of screeners were pulled aside on the spot and told they had failed to find a dangerous item.

"In individual cases, they [the undercover agents] spoke to the screeners," Naccara said. "They were taken aside if they made an error in judgment or process and were told about that. I don't know how many were taken aside."

Naccara insisted that Logan was "no better or worse" than other airports around the country and said screeners should not miss dangerous items like those brought in by the inspectors.

"I'm always disturbed if we miss anything," he said. "We're not perfect. I admit that. It's a learning experience. I can't be defensive. In fact, we took the opposite approach and asked them to please come back often."

In the past, Logan screeners have confiscated "about three dozen" weapons that were "artfully concealed," Naccara said.

In all, screeners in Boston have confiscated thousands of contraband items, many ordinary items that passengers didn't realize could not be carried aboard a plane.

Massachusetts Port Authority officials, who own the airport but have no responsibility for security, said the undercover sting will help the airport improve security.

"By testing airports across the country, the federal government can identify potential weaknesses and improve screening methods and training," said Massport spokesman Jose Juves.

Logan was visited as part of Homeland Security's program of "penetration testing," said Tamara Faulkner, spokeswoman for the inspector general's office.

She would not confirm results of the tests.

"We don't release the information to the general public until we release it to Congress," she said. "We are looking at airport security for the screeners, and we have been conducting reviews of airports across the country."

Meanwhile, TSA officials said they will continue to do their own covert testing to spot holes and improve the computer imaging system.

But the source who works at Logan said the only covert test he was aware of was a computer system that projects an image onto luggage to see if it will be detected. The images are so obvious -- like cartoon pictures of guns and bombs -- they are nearly impossible to miss, the source said.

TSA officials said there are several other layers of airport security to guard against a hijacking.

For example, air marshals now travel on certain flights, they said, and pilots carry guns.

"Anyone who intends to do harm would face numerous obstacles along the way," said Ann Davis, regional spokeswoman for the TSA.

Nationally, Naccara said, TSA has confiscated hundreds of thousands of potential weapons, including a gun wedged between two frying pans.

Bryan Bender and Farah Stockman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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