TSA falls short in evaluating aviation security programs

Although the Transportation Security Administration has taken steps to improve aviation security, the agency lacks an effective system for measuring the performance of its initiatives at the nation's airports, a General Accounting Office official told lawmakers Wednesday.

"Although TSA has implemented numerous programs and initiatives to enhance aviation security, it has collected limited information on the effectiveness of these programs and initiatives," Cathleen Berrick, GAO's director of homeland security and justice issues, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Berrick testified along with Stephen McHale, TSA's deputy administrator.

GAO specifically found that TSA does not have adequate tests to measure the performance of airport screeners in detecting threat objects, Berrick said. A recent incident in which a 20-year-old college student smuggled box cutters and simulated plastic explosives onto two planes shows that aviation security can still be compromised, she noted.

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he is concerned about TSA's performance measurement efforts. He told McHale to be upfront with Congress about challenges the agency is facing.

"We don't want to be surprised," McCain said. "If there are problems and issues, we want to be informed."

Congress has required TSA to establish acceptable levels of performance for aviation security and to develop an annual performance report that documents the effectiveness of its initiatives. GAO found that TSA has issued the required report, but has focused on progress in meeting deadlines rather than on the effectiveness of programs and initiatives.

Berrick said TSA needs to measure the effectiveness of aviation security initiatives that have already been implemented, particularly in the area of passenger screening, and implement a risk management approach to prioritize its efforts, assess threats and focus the agency's resources.

McHale acknowledged vulnerabilities still exist in aviation security, but said airports are more secure today than before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

He said TSA is working with GAO to improve how it measures its programs, especially the performance of screeners. For example, he said TSA is expediting the replacement of conventional X-ray machines with the Threat Image Projection System, which superimposes images of threat objects on monitors during screening operations and records whether screeners identify the objects. He added that TSA is also increasing the number of covert tests of screeners. Berrick said a September GAO study found that only 1 percent of TSA's nearly 50,000 screeners have been subjected to such tests.

McHale also said TSA is initiating a "full end-to-end systems engineering study" of the nation's aviation security system.

Although TSA lacks adequate ways to measure the effectiveness of programs, the agency has initiated efforts to develop and implement goals and performance measures, Berrick said. TSA is developing a five-year strategic plan, which GAO officials hope will address existing problems. TSA expects to complete the plan by February 2004.

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