BY David Saltonstall
DAILY NEWS SENIOR CORRESPONDENT
The air-headed guard who allowed a major security breach at Newark Airport on Sunday has been placed on administrative leave and booted from the airport, the Transportation Security Administration announced Wednesday.
The disciplinary smackdown is the first sign that heads could roll at the TSA as a result of the security breach, during which an unidentified man walked into a supposedly secure area of Terminal C.
The frightening foul-up occurred after the punished TSA guard stepped away from his post at the terminal's C1 exit-way—apparently to take a call on his cellphone.
TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said in a statement that the guard had been place on administrative leave and is no longer working at the airport, one of the nation's busiest.
"The circumstances surrounding the incident at Newark Airport on Sunday are under full review," the agency said.
As a result of the security breach, hundreds of flights out of Newark were delayed for hours on Sunday after thousands of passengers had to be rescreened on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
The disciplinary action came as New Jersey's U.S. senators sent a missive to the acting chief of the TSA, demanding answers to the lame-brained security breach.
Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez said in a letter to acting TSA chief Gale Rossides that Sunday's failure could have been much worse.
"The suspect had gone through no security checks or screening and could have potentially been armed with dangerous weapons or explosives," the senators wrote of the wrong-way walker.
"While luckily this was not the case," they added, "we cannot rely on luck for our safety—we have to be right 100% of the time, while those who would do harm only have to be right one time."
The senators said that as frightening as the breach was, the TSA's bungling of the aftermath was equally troubling.
After being told by a sharp-eyed bystander that someone had entered the terminal's secure area unchecked, TSA spent more than an hour trying to confirm the report by looking at security video.
One big problem: Security cameras owned by the Port Authority, but operated and maintained by the TSA, were not recording. That forced TSA investigators to chase down other videotape recorded by Continental Airlines, which occupies most of Terminal C.
As a result of the mad scramble, TSA did not notify the Port Authority of the breach for a full 80 minutes.
Another problem: only a single TSA employee was assigned to guard the busy exit-way. And he was apparently chatting on his cell phone at the moment the trespass occurred, sources said.
The senators called upon the TSA to implement at least three changes as the investigations continues:
- Reinforce all terminal exits with "adequate personnel." On Tuesday, the TSA preemptively posted a second guard outside each exit-way.
- Immediately ensure that all video equipment is "continuously operational" and subjected to frequent checks by TSA staffers.
- Investigate why it took so long for the TSA to notify the Port Authority, and implement measures to improve coordination going forward.
The agency responded in a statement that TSA "is committed to working with our airline and law enforcement partners at Newark Liberty Airport to determine together how overall coordination and response can be improved during an incident."