At Hartsfield-Jackson airport, it’s not always the travelers who pose the safety risk

Smuggling operations reveal cracks in security
Illustration by The Red Dress
Illustration by The Red Dress

In 2009, federal agents received a tip that Devon Samuels, then a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, was smuggling drug money through the airport in exchange for a fee of as much as $5,000. But the scope of the Stockbridge resident’s misdeeds, investigators soon found, was much broader. His position allowed him access to a secure database called TECS (Treasury Enforcement Communications System) from which he could see which of his drug-trafficking friends were being investigated. Undercover agents hired Samuels to carry cash-filled luggage or clothing to Jamaica, where he delivered it to agents posing as traffickers. Another time, Samuels smuggled five handguns through the Atlanta airport and into the hands of an undercover officer he thought was in cahoots with a Mexican drug cartel.

When federal agents checked the names in Samuels’s TECS searches against airline passenger lists, they stumbled onto a colorful cast of drug runners, mostly from suburban Atlanta, with nicknames like “Nigel the Barber,” “Fatman,” and “Damage.” The joint investigation between several federal agencies also implicated a former DeKalb County police officer named Donald Bristol. The resulting 2010 takedown netted one of the largest domestic seizures of the party drug BZP in United States history. In June 2011, a federal judge sentenced Samuels to eight years in prison.

Surveillance footage showing Samuels (circled below) using his ID to smuggle money and guns into the airport
Surveillance footage showing Samuels (at door) using his ID to smuggle money and guns into the airport

“Operation Rude Beast,” as investigators coined the bust that began with the Samuels tip, isn’t even the most publicized smuggling case involving employees at Atlanta’s airport in recent memory. That dubious honor would go to the arrest of Eugene Harvey, a Delta baggage handler from College Park, who is accused of using his security badge last year to bypass screening in order to smuggle 153 firearms—many of them loaded—onto 17 passenger planes.

Harvey allegedly would enter public restrooms and give gun-filled bags to former Delta employee Mark Quentin Henry. Prosecutors say Henry then flew the weapons to New York, where they were being sold on the street until an undercover NYPD officer bought one, which led to the arrests of both suspects, who now await trial in Atlanta. Kenneth Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, called it an “egregious breach of security,” an assertion that, to Hartsfield-Jackson officials, was as obvious as it was embarrassing. The root of the problem, Thompson insisted, was lax screening for Atlanta airport employees. If a baggage handler could smuggle assault rifles onto planes, he could easily sneak aboard a bomb, he said.

“That kind of trafficking—whether it’s money or guns—within the airport, it creates an additional layer of harm to the community,” says John Horn, U.S. attorney in Atlanta. “The airport is such a huge institution to [Atlanta]; we have the obligation to make sure that it’s safe.”

That’s exactly what airport and airline officials insist they’re trying to do now. And while the security clampdown has been swift, officials acknowledge that ATL’s sheer vastness—with dozens of “access points,” such as locked doors to the airfield that require security badges for entry—doesn’t lend itself to one-size-fits-all solutions.

Airport general manager Miguel Southwell speaks of Hartsfield-Jackson as a mini city. Indeed, on any given day, some 63,000 employees report to the world’s busiest airport, to assist, feed, and protect more than a quarter million passengers—enough people to fill the Georgia Dome almost four and a half times. Of those employees, about 43,000 have been approved to access secure areas, which include the concourses and the airfield. They come and go around the clock.

Anyone hoping to work in a secure area—from concessions employees on up—must pass a fingerprint-based background check conducted by the FBI that stretches back more than a decade and a security threat assessment that checks terrorist data-bases and immigration records, as well as undergo training in order to obtain an ID badge. Applicants who want to work with international flights in any form must pass a more stringent Customs and Border Protection probe. Any of about 30 types of criminal convictions will disqualify an applicant.

Prior to the headline-grabbing arrests last December, screening protocol for airport employees was indeed laxer than it is today, though airport director of policy and communications Reese McCranie is quick to point out the “multilayered security plan” had been approved by the Transportation Security Administration. At the time, all employees who were boarding planes—except for known crew members and air marshals—were required to be screened by magnetometers and their bags x-rayed. Harvey allegedly exploited a loophole in the TSA protocol that allowed him to bypass concourse screening—simply coming to work and bringing guns in via the “backdoor method,” as security experts have called it. The old theory went that subjecting every employee to full screenings every day would be cost-prohibitive.

The smuggled guns that led to Samuels’s bust
The smuggled guns that led to Samuels’s bust

By March, though, Hartsfield-Jackson officials had whittled 70 employee access points around the airport down to 17. Doing so means that thousands of employees have had their access restricted and must now enter through an alternative inspection or screening area. Once inside, they’re also subject to more frequent checks of their possessions—“random pullovers, if you will,” Southwell says.

Several Atlanta police officers were transferred to fill vacant airport security positions, and vehicle inspections for employees and construction workers entering the perimeter fence were ramped up, Southwell says. Construction of an employees-only checkpoint—one that won’t lengthen public lines at TSA scanners—wrapped in August at a cost of $7 million. It’s operated by about 70 newly hired and privately contracted screeners.

As of September, the airport had begun screening all employees and airline workers except those who work for Delta—with a goal of screening 100 percent before 2016. (Delta is on track to screen all employees by year’s end, too, says spokesman Morgan Durrant, while implementing other “covert measures” he can’t discuss.) Doing so would make Atlanta the third of 452 commercial airports in the U.S. (behind Miami and Orlando) to screen employees across the board.

The boosted security measures will cost the airport about $5 million annually, mostly to pay for the new inspectors. The additional cash will come from the airport’s half-billion-dollar operating budget, officials say, not from added costs or fees for travelers.

Southwell is confident the changes have tamped down the potential for insider threats. “We have taken the steps to provide the public with assurance that it is safe to fly through [Atlanta],” he says. Despite the sheer number of employees, Southwell says violations of security protocol are “still a pretty remote occurrence.”

Flight stats

guns allegedly smuggled by two delta workers in 2014

Airport employees

annual cost of additional security measures at atl

new security screeners for airport employees

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue under the headline “Security Breach.”