Transportation Security Administration faces strict deadlines

The newly created Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is scurrying to meet strict deadlines mandated by an aviation and transportation security law enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

John Magaw, the head of TSA, told the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday that requirements already met by the Transportation Department include the federalization of baggage screeners and the mandate that air carriers begin to electronically transmit passenger lists from foreign airlines.

Feb. 17 is the deadline for Transportation to take over vendor contracts for baggage screening. TSA officials soon will be deployed to the nation's 429 airports to assess how much space is available for new screening machines and how many are needed.

TSA is using the Baltimore-Washington International Airport to study security operations, test TSA deployment techniques and technology, and train security managers. The agency also has assembled groups of consultants from companies such as Intel and Walt Disney.

Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., voiced the need for "strong safeguards" to prevent bias in awarding contracts for various equipment, given TSA's close work with industry representatives.

Explosive-detection equipment is a vital part of the baggage-checking program, Magaw said. Computers will screen passengers, and passengers will be screened for weapons, often more than once. An explosive-detection device must screen every bag by the end of the year.

"Working with a team of consultants, we are looking at a wide variety of innovative approaches using technology, different ways to run the check-in process, and procurement strategies that can get us to that goal," Magaw said.

Magaw said he will rely heavily on the Transportation Security Oversight Board, which will be composed of Cabinet secretaries and representatives from intelligence and national security groups--the White House Office of Homeland Security, in particular.

TSA is searching for officials to head the new Office of Intelligence, which will be one step down from Magaw's office. The office will confer with intelligence agencies and coordinate information sharing among governments and managers of airports, train stations, ports and other routes when increased security measures are necessary.

An "EZ-Pass" system, or a voluntary system where Americans would have personal information stored on a card, has been proposed to shorten airports' security lines. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., said although such technological systems would be a huge investment in the beginning, it would decrease necessary airport manpower and alleviate other security headaches.

Magaw said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta will consider that option, but Magaw voiced caution. He said the technology exists to establish such a system and currently is used in certain parts of Europe, but several issues need to be addressed. For instance, it would have to be determined whether those passengers would still get their bags checked.

"What does that gain us to do that?" Magaw said. "I'm not willing to make that move at this point."

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