Aug. 15--The recent theft of guns from checked baggage at O'Hare International Airport points to a serious weakness in aviation security that will be difficult to pinpoint because thousands of employees ranging from pilots to airline caterers carry clearances allowing them to walk onto airplanes.
The guns stolen from the bags--all involving passengers departing O'Hare on United Airlines--probably are being taken out of the airport and sold or used in crimes, federal and local authorities said Monday in response to a Tribune report on the disappearing weapons.
But they acknowledged that it is not known who took the firearms, how they got them or where the weapons ended up.
As many as a dozen guns, some belonging to police officers and military personnel, disappeared from bags checked at the United terminal this year and in 2005, according to sources familiar with the investigation being conducted by the FBI, the Chicago Police Department and the Transportation Security Administration.
"It doesn't matter how many guns are involved. If it is one gun, it is a very serious matter," United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said. She said the airline is conducting an internal investigation and cooperating with the law-enforcement agencies, but she declined to say what United is doing differently to safeguard air travelers.
Federal security authorities at O'Hare and city aviation officials dismissed the likelihood of a more serious problem involving the potential for terrorism, even while Homeland Security officials remain on high-alert after a reported plot to detonate explosives on U.S.-bound airliners was broken up in Britain last week.
"We remind all passengers that there is no risk to airport safety and security due to the reported thefts of firearms," said Wendy Abrams, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation.
But the breach creates the risk that stolen guns could be smuggled onto airplanes for use in an attack, security experts said.
In addition, the apparent ease with which employees have opened checked baggage already screened for explosives raises concerns that a bomb could be planted inside the bags anywhere between the ticket counters and aircraft.
"The problem at the back doors of any airport is that with so many workers authorized to go behind the sterile security zone, any one of them could hide a gun or a bomb in an airplane lavatory," said John Mullins, a security manager for Robinson Aviation in Oklahoma City.
Checked baggage that has been screened for explosives is considered "sterile" from a security standpoint, meaning no unauthorized personnel are allowed to touch it.
Safeguards are required to protect against tampering for the entire time the bags pass through explosives-detection machines, travel on conveyor belts through baggage-sorting rooms in the bowels of the airport and finally are placed onto airplanes.
Even if the motive of workers stealing the guns at O'Hare is strictly to carry out a criminal act, the thieves are vulnerable to being blackmailed by individuals seeking to harm passengers or destroy aircraft, the experts said.
"If you have dishonest people, they are liable to do anything," said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant based in Colorado.
Federal security officials insisted Monday that the stolen guns do not represent a lapse in security that could endanger passengers because a multilayered security system is in place to regularly challenge employees about their activities and whereabouts at the airport. In addition, all employees undergo background and criminal history checks and fingerprinting.
"Once that employee is badged, they become a partner in security and are responsible for upholding the regulations," said Lara Uselding, a TSA spokeswoman.
About 53,000 employees--security screeners, airplane cleaners, mechanics, construction workers, deliverymen and many others--are approved to enter various "special identification areas" at O'Hare.
Where on the 7,800-acre airport an individual employee can go legally depends on whether he or she has a green identification badge, issued to most airport and airline employees; a red badge, given to vendors; or a blue badge, which allows senior managers to go virtually anywhere, officials said.
The TSA required all U.S. airports to conduct new background checks for all employees and issue new ID cards in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Law enforcement and security officials declined to say whether their investigation at O'Hare was pointing to United employees, security agency personnel or others as the perpetrators.
On average, 10 bags a day containing guns are checked at the United terminal at O'Hare, authorities said.
The gun owners must fill out disclosure forms and meet other requirements to transport the weapons by air.
Security agency employees are aware of the presence of guns in checked bags when they see the objects on monitors during X-ray screening and explosives-detection procedures. Some bags require hand inspections to verify what the security employees see on the screening monitors.
Attendants at airline curbside check-in kiosks or airline ticket-counter agents are the first personnel that travelers transporting guns would notify about the weapons. But many other airline employees, from baggage-sorters to aircraft-ramp workers, also are responsible for working with baggage.