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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 13:34 GMT
Mass arrests in US airport sweep
A passenger is searched
Passenger checks are now done by federal employees
More than 100 staff at United States airports have been arrested and charged with falsifying their credentials in a massive security sweep at New York's major airports.

The arrests at John F Kennedy and La Guardia airports followed background checks on 40,000 people with access to non-public areas, said Roslynn Mauskopf, a federal prosecutor in New York.


We will not tolerate airport employees who lie in connection with a vital step in our airport security procedures

Roslynn Mauskopf
Prosecutor
Ninety-eight people were charged with registering fake social security numbers or concealing criminal backgrounds and 20 others were discovered to be illegal immigrants, Ms Mauskopf said.

The background checks were ordered in the wake of the 11 September attacks, but Ms Mauskopf stressed that there was no evidence that any of those arrested had links to terrorist organisations.

Among those charged on Tuesday were security guards, baggage handlers, engineers, customs agents and cleaners.

Exposing vulnerabilities

Prior to 11 September background checks on airport staff were not strictly enforced, but now all that has changed.

"Just as we would not allow a passenger to board a flight with a bogus identification, we will not tolerate airport employees who lie in connection with a vital step in our airport security procedures," Ms Mauskopf said.

Other airports across the country have carried out similar security crackdowns.

Arrested airport worker is led away
Some of those arrested are wanted for other crimes

"The airports, the airlines and, most importantly the air traveller become vulnerable [...] when individuals with access to the most sensitive areas of our nation's airports gain that access based upon lies," Kevin Donovan, assistant director of the FBI's New York office said.

At least nine of the staff arrested were wanted for other crimes, including one being sought in connection with a child rape in 1986 and one named on a "most wanted" list in New Jersey for drug trafficking offences.

"Airport security badges are literally the keys to the kingdom," Mr Donovan.

The maximum penalty for misuse of a Social Security number or lying on a security employee application is five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

The illegal immigrants rounded up may also face deportation, officials said.

Screening federalised

The arrests came a day after federal authorities said that they had completed the switch from privately contracted passenger screeners at US airports to federal employees.

The 44,000 new staff were called in as part of a massive shake-up of airport security in the wake off last year's terror attacks on New York and Washington in which terrorist's hijacked passenger jets.

President George W Bush set a one-year deadline on the staff changes to be made. On Monday - one day before the deadline - Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said they were complete.

"More than 44,000 dedicated men and women have been hired, trained and deployed to screen passengers and assure the safety of our skies," Mr Ridge said.

The new recruits, selected from 1.4 million applicants, have all "received more than 100 hours of classroom and on-the-job training for this important responsibility," Mr Ridge added.

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