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An undercover operation found TSA failed to detect banned items, but ex-agents came to its defense


Undercover agents were able to get mock knives, guns and explosives through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints 70 percent of the time, according to a recent report, but former TSA agents came to the agency’s defense.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) detailed the undercover operation that found the high failure rate to the House Homeland Security Committee last week, media outlets reported.

Former TSA agent John Watkins said a report like this is a way of “grabbing a headline,” and he thinks overall TSA does a good job.

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“We used to detect just a ton, boxes of contraband,” Watkins said. “We would have boxes of stuff at the end of the month that we destroyed, so if it’s 70 percent that seems really high.”

Watkins said he has been asked by TSA supervisors to bring banned items, like knives or parts of a bomb, through security checkpoints to test current TSA agents. He said they caught the items every time.

Mary Khalaf is also a former TSA agent who had tested TSA security by carrying fake weapons through checkpoints, but she experienced different results.

“I was pregnant, so I was able to very easily hide the false things and I was also very good at hiding them in the bags, so I would do that and they would fail a lot," Khalaf said.

But Khalaf still defends the agency. She said she was able to fool security because she knows the system, which most people do not.

“That shows how important standard operation procedure is. How important knowledge is. How important the integrity of the officers are," Khalaf said.

Last week's report comes two years after TSA was found having a 95 percent failure rate, CBS and ABC reported. Despite both of these reports, Watkins said it only seems like TSA does a bad job because the public only hears when they fail, not when they succeed.

"We don’t hear what really gets caught, and they don't want to say because then it tips off to people that do want to get something harmful through how to get something through," Watkins said.

The report is classified, but DHS OIG released a summary of the report, which said the department had conducted the tests on TSA's effectiveness at security checkpoints and found vulnerabilities.

Related: A DHS audit found the agency can't justify hiring 15,000 agents because they don't have a plan

A DHS audit found the agency can't justify hiring 15,000 agents because they don't have a plan

TSA was given eight recommendations by DHS OIG to help improve the screening process.

The agency takes the report’s findings seriously and said it plans to improve the process and invest in new technology to make the system more secure, according to TSA administrator David Pekoske in a statement.

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