House lawmakers grill TSA over aviation security

House lawmakers have hit the Transportation Security Administration with an extensive list of questions about aviation security, asking the agency to explain how it is improving the training of airport screeners, accounting for expenditures, overseeing contracts, making management decisions, and working to install more explosive-detection equipment at the nation's airports.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation submitted five pages of questions to TSA in response to ongoing concerns about aviation security. Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., announced his intention to submit the questions during an Oct. 16 hearing, in which TSA Administrator James Loy testified. Mica approved the questions, which were publicly released this week.

The questions come on top of a review of TSA launched by the House Government Reform Committee last week. In both circumstances, lawmakers said they are reacting to recent reports by the General Accounting Office and the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department that found problems with how TSA manages the training of airport passenger and baggage screeners.

The subcommittee is also seeking information concerning TSA's hiring practices for managers. The subcommittee asked if TSA's deputy director of screener training and performance is the same person who managed the Civil Aviation Security Field Office at Boston's Logan International Airport when two aircraft were hijacked there on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Are you concerned that we will not get better screener performance when the same person is in charge?" one question asked.

Another issue the subcommittee broached is whether TSA would allow companies that are owned or controlled by foreign companies to bid on private contracts with airports for screening services. Beginning in November 2004, airports will have the option of using federal screening workforces or employing screeners from the private sector.

Mica said the law gives TSA the flexibility to hire foreign companies for screening services if domestic companies are not available, or do not have the capacity.

"If 50 airports, for example, notify TSA next November that they want to opt out, are there enough qualified American companies, as defined by law, to provide qualified private screeners?" Mica inquired. He added that several private security companies that operate around the world currently guard some of the nation's most sensitive facilities under contracts with the Defense and Energy departments.

"Why shouldn't these companies be allowed to guard our airline passengers as well?" Mica asked.

With regard to hiring screeners, TSA announced Tuesday that it had awarded a $4.8 million contract to Kroll Government Service of New York, N.Y., to conduct initial background checks on screeners through December 2004.

"TSA screeners serve on the front line of homeland security, and the American people need to know that they are of the highest caliber," Loy said in a statement. "This contract will assist TSA in quickly and accurately performing background checks on potential TSA screeners prior to making them a job offer."

The initial background checks include: a credit check; a name-based check of criminal history records; a check of local criminal history records in every jurisdiction where a screener has lived for the past 10 years; and an analysis to determine whether candidates present potential terrorist threats or may be associated with potential terrorist threats.

After the initial check, screeners must clear a second background check performed by the Office of Personnel Management. The second check includes a check of selected federal databases, as well as verification of education, employment, U.S. citizenship, and references.

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