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Originally published May 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 18, 2008 at 6:57 PM

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Danny Westneat

Sea-Tac's security: Are they serious?

Greg Alderete has more than a passing interest in homeland security. A retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, he has devoted most of his...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Greg Alderete has more than a passing interest in homeland security. A retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, he has devoted most of his life to it.

So when he realized he had driven a van onto a runway tarmac at Sea-Tac airport — and that no one had asked his name, checked his ID or searched his vehicle — well, he just about lost it."I was appalled," Alderete says. "If you go in the airport's front door, they take away your tube of toothpaste. But the back door? That's the weakest security of any critical facility I've ever seen."

He's talking about the corporate jet area, on the airport's south tip. Business and government bigwigs fly in and out of there.

Alderete and Chris Clodfelter, a former senior master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, arrived there Thursday, May 8, to pick up a two-star general flying in from Portland.

What happened floored them. When they said they were picking up an Army official, the gate opened and they were invited to drive onto the airfield.

"We were sitting there, the engine idling, nobody around, when all of a sudden I realized: We're out on the goddamn runway," Alderete recalled. "We're in a gassed-up, seven-passenger van, and no one really knows who we are. We have an unobstructed path to the main runways, the commercial gates, the whole place. It was unbelievable."

No one asked their names or screened them or the van. Both were in civilian clothes.

"Within 30 seconds we could have been flooring it down the runway," Clodfelter says. "They couldn't have stopped us."

"With a van full of weapons we could have shut down the entire aviation system," Alderete said.

Now when I first heard this story, I figured they were exaggerating. Or maybe there was a lot more security than they realized.

Nope. Not really. It all happened pretty much as they say.

Both the Port of Seattle and the federal Transportation Safety Administration reviewed the incident, including videotapes, and concluded their security system is sound.

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"We are satisfied with how procedures were followed that day," said Perry Cooper, airport spokesman. "We have never had a security lapse in that part of the airport."

It turns out there's no requirement, local or federal, to check IDs or screen drivers and cars when they go into that part of the airfield.

Drivers must be meeting known flights and are supposed to be escorted. But Alderete and Clodfelter say they were left on their own.

Cooper says it was a "visual escort" — someone could look out and see them. They were allowed on the tarmac for 33 minutes.

Clodfelter worked in Air Force operations for 21 years and says nothing so lax would cut it there.

"Take McChord," he said. "Nobody gets anywhere near the active runway without a badge. I don't think they're serious at Sea-Tac."

"You get checked more going into a Mariners game than you do on the back side of Sea-Tac," Alderete said.

This would all be one thing coming from me. I've been known to harp on and on about how our homeland security makes no sense. But I'm a newspaper columnist.

Alderete, on the other hand, was director of security for Army bases in battle zones such as Mogadishu. Maybe someone will listen to him?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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