July 14--Charlotte aviation director Jerry Orr blasted the Transportation Security Administration's role in the investigation of a teen stowaway from Charlotte's airport, saying the TSA was "more interested in avoiding responsibility" than finding out what happened.
Orr spoke in Washington on Wednesday before a congressional committee on airport security, which focused, in part, on the case of 16-year-old Delvonte Tisdale, a North Mecklenburg High student who is believed to have stowed away inside the wheel well of a Boston-bound US Airways jet on Nov. 15. Investigators say they believe Tisdale's body fell from the plane when it lowered its landing gear on approach to Boston.
Orr has long criticized the effectiveness of the TSA and has said individual airports could do a better job at airport security than the federal agency.
But his testimony Wednesday delivered detailed criticism of how the TSA handled the Tisdale investigation. Orr said the TSA declined to do its own investigation, and that the agency said the Charlotte police should handle the case.
Orr said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police investigation was hampered, in part, because the TSA "neglected to safeguard video of passenger security checkpoints and employee access points."
Orr, speaking before a House subcommittee on national security, homeland defense and foreign operations, said investigators couldn't review all of the tapes from Nov. 15 because some had been lost after 30 days.
"Other video surveillance was inaccessible at the time TSA finally sought to preserve it," Orr said.
Security breach questioned
Charlotte police officials haven't publicly said where they believe Tisdale breached airport security. Massachusetts investigators have speculated the teen climbed Charlotte/Douglas International Airport's six-foot-high chain-link fence that's topped with barbed wire. That area of security is mostly the airport's responsibility.
In his testimony Wednesday, Orr said that the CMPD report "fails to note that there was insufficient evidence to conclusively exclude TSA checkpoints as a possible point of entry."
TSA spokesperson Jonathan Allen refuted Orr's claims.
He said in an email to the Observer that there was a "thorough review of (closed-circuit) footage, (and) video was indeed archived to an external hard drive which was provided to the airport."
He said the city's own report, which was released in April, said "there is evidence to support that Mr. Tisdale did not access the aircraft's location via one of the TSA security checkpoints."
Airport security is a partnership between the TSA and the city. The TSA is responsible for security checkpoints and for approving the airport's overall security plan. The city is responsible for perimeter fencing and other security measures that don't directly deal with passengers.
Orr: TSA punishing airport
Orr also said Wednesday that he believes the TSA is punishing the airport because of the negative publicity surrounding the Tisdale case. "I feel that CLT (airport) has been singled out for disparate treatment -- even retribution -- by the TSA," Orr said. Orr also said the airport is having difficulty getting the TSA to approve Charlotte/Douglas' "Airport Security Program."
Since the body of Tisdale was found in a Boston suburb, confusion has surrounded the case. Charlotte airport officials at first refused to comment on the possibility that the North Mecklenburg High student might have stowed away in Charlotte.
In December, a Massachusetts prosecutor, citing concerns over terrorism, went public with his theory that Tisdale climbed inside the wheel well of the Boeing 737 at the Charlotte airport.
In mid-December, the Observer reported that Orr planned no special review of airport security -- despite a statement by Norfolk (Mass.) County district attorney William Keating sounding an alarm about Charlotte airport security. Days later, the city reversed itself, saying that CMPD would investigate.
In Orr's testimony Wednesday, the aviation director said he never heard from the TSA about what the airport should do. He said the TSA federal security director for Charlotte/Douglas International told Orr that the airport should launch its own probe.
"I questioned this recommendation," Orr said. "Why wouldn't the TSA take the lead?"
Orr added: "When there is a threat onboard an aircraft, the FBI responds and investigates. When there is an airplane crash, the NTSB responds and investigates. When a pilot makes an error on the airfield, the FAA responds and investigates."
The TSA's official position is that it has launched an investigation. Allen told the Observer Wednesday that its investigation is still ongoing, nearly eight months since the security breach.
Allen also released a letter Orr sent the TSA in May, in which Orr said he had a "cordial and cooperative" discussion with federal officials. "That was different from what we heard today," Allen said.