ust 2 years old, the Transportation Security Administration is besieged. To be sure, the agency has been under the microscope from Day One. It had to meet nearly impossible legislative deadlines to ensure full screening of airline passengers and baggage for explosives and other deadly devices. While winning kudos for hitting those marks, the agency increasingly finds itself in a defensive posture, facing a number of equally difficult challenges and harsh critics.
Having focused almost exclusively on aviation security during the past two years, the agency now turns its attention to the rest of the nation's vast transportation network, including 3.9 million miles of roads, 600,000 bridges, more than 100,000 miles of rail track, 300 seaports, 2.2 million miles of pipelines, and 500 train stations. And, it has to continue building an organization that heretofore has not had much time for such seemingly mundane tasks as strategic planning and vigorous contract management.
As if that weren't enough, TSA must perform its missions while facing an unforgiving and demanding group of constituents. Critics on Capitol Hill say the agency has a bloated workforce. Prodded by lobbyists, lawmakers also forced the agency to make customer service as high a priority as security. TSA is being investigated for mismanagement of a contract to recruit screeners. Disgruntled workers want to unionize. Stakeholder groups chastise the agency for being too insular and wonder how TSA will interact with other regulatory entities. There's concern that it is moving too slowly to develop a risk-based approach for allocating resources. What's more, TSA is scrabbling to get a foothold within its new home, the Homeland Security Department. Even there, the agency has challenges. Most notably fighting through a multi-layered bureaucracy in order to accomplish its agenda.
Many of these issues are playing themselves out piecemeal during congressional hearings and in the news media. Individually, they create interesting mini-dramas. Taken together, they have left the young agency struggling to find its way.
CLIPPING ITS WINGS
TSA's most visible function also happens to be the subject of heated debate. When the agency was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, preliminary estimates suggested it could perform passenger and baggage screening with about 30,000 workers. The estimates were based on data from the private screening companies that handled the work before the attacks, according to former TSA Administrator John Magaw. The agency hoped to cross-train screeners to do both types of screening, but that plan never materialized due to the pressures to meet congressional deadlines. Instead, TSA's screener workforce grew to more than 56,000 by the end of 2002.
Congressional appropriators were irate over the vigorous pace at which TSA was spending and hiring. Legislators' irritation mounted when they saw TSA screeners standing around airports during slow travel periods. On Capitol Hill and elsewhere, TSA was said to stand for "Thousands Standing Around." In 2002 and 2003 appropriations bills, Congress capped the number of screeners at 45,000. TSA slashed some 6,000 people from its workforce this summer, from 55,600 to 49,600. TSA says staff cuts came via attrition and reductions in force based on job performance. The fiscal 2004 appropriation moving through Congress would force further cuts, bringing the workforce closer to 45,000.
TSA field officials say the reductions have had a dramatic impact on operations. Standing in a secure windowless room in the bowels of Boston's Logan International Airport, George Naccara, TSA's security director at the airport, points to six computer terminals that are used in the screening process. "We should have two people per each machine," he says. "We only have three people here."
The three screeners view images from explosive detection equipment installed along the airport's luggage conveyer belts. The in-line system at Logan is state-of-the-art. Instead of having the SUV-sized scanners in terminal lobbies, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) spent millions of dollars to build the equipment into its baggage handling system. This allows luggage to move more rapidly from check-in to airplanes. Screeners have roughly 42 seconds to decide whether a bag is safe or should be diverted for hand inspection. Having too few screeners means there are fewer opportunities to get second opinions. As a result, more luggage is being hand checked than necessary, Naccara says. This is an inefficient use of screeners' time and causes delays in loading baggage onto airplanes. Passenger security checkpoints aren't fully staffed either. At one point, Logan had more than 1,300 screeners. As of mid-August, there were around 915, according to Naccara.
Staff losses have angered screeners. "We went from 320 workers in baggage to about 250," says Dennis Cullity, a screener at Logan and member of the American Federation of Government Employees who is trying unionize his colleagues. "Morale is pretty low." Claiming that the reductions in staffing weren't legal, AFGE is suing TSA. The union alleges that the criteria used to determine who got laid off did not follow established reduction-in-force procedures, which protect veterans, longtime federal employees, and employees with good performance evaluations. AFGE wants the agency to redo the staff reductions and rehire some screeners. TSA officials declined to comment on the pending litigation. But in its legal brief, TSA notes that the 2001 law creating the agency gives the administrator broad discretion to hire and fire screeners.
To help alleviate staffing shortages at some airports, TSA is turning to part-time employees. Aviation experts say TSA should have considered this from the outset. Given the ebb and flow of air travel, it doesn't make sense to have screeners standing around during parts of their eight-hour shifts. Rather, the agency needs to match staffing levels with peak travel times during the day. Peter Winch, national organizer for AFGE, opposes the concept. He says the agency should assign full-time workers to other duties or provide training during slow periods. Cullity says promises of cross-training never have come to fruition. It's a source of frustration expressed by screeners at Logan and other airports interviewed for this story. Acknowledging that training is a point of contention, Naccara says screeners mainly get refresher training. He'd like to put his own program in place, but is bound by a national contract requiring Lockheed Martin to run training courses.
AFGE uses the lack of training as a rallying cry for its organizing effort. Earlier this year, the union launched a national campaign to sign up screeners. Winch argues that workers are not being fairly treated when it comes to schedules and assignments. As of September, more than 6,000 screeners had expressed interest in joining AFGE, according to Winch, and 500 had begun paying dues. Because screeners can't collectively bargain, some see little value in paying union dues. The law creating TSA gives Administrator
James Loy the discretion to prohibit collective bargaining. He made such a decree in January, saying that it "is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war against terrorism." AFGE sued the agency in hopes of removing that restriction. A federal district court in September dismissed the case. At press time, AFGE was expected to appeal.
TSA also is wrestling with White House budgeters. The agency's fiscal 2004 budget request does not include funding for purchase or installation of explosive detection equipment. Aviation industry experts, as well as TSA officials, are eager to copy Logan by incorporating the machines into the baggage handling system. But few airports are willing to move forward with construction until they receive financial help from the federal government. The costs are too high. Massport, which was willing to cover the costs upfront in the hope that federal aid would eventually come, spent $146 million to install 38 explosive detection machines.
Loy has promised to help airports by providing 75 percent of the funding for construction of in-line systems, but as of early September, only six airports had received commitments of funding from TSA. At least 30 requests are pending, according to industry officials. Hundreds more airports are waiting to see whether the money will actually be made available before moving forward with plans to reconfigure their facilities. Logan officials didn't learn they would be reimbursed $87 million until July, nearly a year after they had committed to embark on construction.
Despite the administration's failure to request explosive detection equipment funding, House and Senate appropriators included it in their fiscal 2004 bills. The House committee lashed out at the administration in its report, saying it is "very disappointed in the unrealistic nature of the fiscal year 2004 budget and urges TSA not to overlook these critical needs in the future." TSA sources say the White House budget office exerted pressure to zero out funding for certain programs, thus forcing Congress to take action.
While frustrated by the budget battles, Loy says he is somewhat forgiving. "As I look back on the history of our country, there is often a sequence of events that occurs: There is a tragedy, followed by an emotional plea for legislation, followed by a year or two of budget turmoil while the Congress and the administration and the new agency try to sort out the job description on one hand and resources on the other," he says. "I think we are in the middle of that turmoil period. My guess is that 2005 will be the first time we have a normal budget cycle." Still, he says the agency is functioning like a "$7 billion organization in a $6 billion suit. . . . Things that we thought we would be further down the road on have been frustrated by being left at the alter of the budget process."
External forces also are causing the agency to reevaluate its priorities. When TSA was first formed in November 2001, it was to provide law enforcement officers to patrol the nation's airports. Airport lobbying groups felt TSA overemphasized law enforcement to the detriment of customer service and voiced their concerns to Congress members and Bush administration officials. In July 2002, Magaw, who had come to personify TSA's free-spending ways and law enforcement focus, was forced out of office and replaced by Loy. One of Loy's first tasks was to ensure that customer service-that is, attention to the needs of airports and convenience of airline customers-received as much attention as security. He felt the pendulum had swung too far toward security.
Some security directors are discouraged by the increased emphasis on customer service under Loy. One director for a large airport on the East Coast, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says that the drive to appease aviation industry groups has turned security directors into paper tigers. "The intention to make TSA a law enforcement agency never materialized," says William Pickle, former security director at Denver International Airport. Pickle is now the Senate sergeant-at-arms. "We came to a 'Y' in the road and took the wrong path. At least that is what a lot of us thought."
"After a while, we just started calling ourselves federal screening directors, not federal security directors," says Anthony Zotto, former security director at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Zotto was one of the first eight security directors hired. With 26 years of federal service, 22 in the Secret Service, he was eager help TSA fulfill its mission. But very quickly he realized the agency was being pulled in different directions. When he was brought on board, Zotto was told he would have direct control over law enforcement activities at National. "When I said that to the airport people, they looked at me like I had two heads," he says. Zotto is one of 12 security directors who have left the agency as of early September. There are 158 such positions within TSA.
Loy says he can understand the former security directors' dissatisfaction. "Their perspective at the beginning was that they would be powerful mini-security czars with the idea that what happened at their airports would pretty much be theirs to determine," he says. He suspects that some of the frustration likely stems from the fact that budget shortfalls have prevented security directors from getting all the tools they need, including a full contingent of screeners and more explosive detection equipment.
There are other concerns. Zotto says communications with headquarters were not very good. Responses to questions were not always forthcoming or timely, he says. While Logan's Naccara is not as critical, he, too, has some frustrations. Primarily, that the agency has yet to issue a final strategic plan. That has hampered his ability to move forward with a plan for Logan. He has created metrics and goals for his workforce, but it's not clear whether they are in sync with what will be forthcoming from Washington. He's also interested in exploring new initiatives, such as coordinating security checks with cruise ships that send passengers to Logan. Although he is exploring such a pilot program, lacking clear guidance from headquarters, it is difficult to move ahead.
Still, Logan is considered TSA's standard-bearer. Officials from Massport, TSA and local law enforcement agencies have made considerable strides in coordinating activity and sharing intelligence. To a large degree, Logan's success stems from the close-knit relationship forged between Naccara and Thomas Kinton, aviation director for Massport. "It is very clear that the leadership at Massport has the same focus on security as TSA," says Naccara. "My personal feeling is that when you are directly affected, as we were, you have a different perspective," adds Kinton. "We viewed this as a team effort from Day One."
During daily briefings every morning, representatives from all airport stakeholders-airlines, vendors, local police-are present to hear about new developments or policies. They share concerns about existing rules as well. If there is a security breach, Naccara and Kinton coordinate the response. They work with local law enforcement experts to better train screeners to identify suspicious passengers and objects. Experts who worked with El-Al, the Israeli airline, were brought in to conduct training as well.
As TSA tries to sort out budget and staffing, the agency also must build its organization. A significant challenge is putting in place strong contractor oversight. TSA contracts out a vast number of functions, including installation of explosive detection equipment and screener training and recruitment. In fact, the original contract to recruit screeners is the subject of an inspector general investigation. In March 2002, the agency signed on NCS Pearson Government Solutions of Eden Prairie, Minn., with a $103 million contract to hire the screeners. By December 2002, costs soared to $600 million for hiring and $200 million for training. Accusations abound about Pearson's spending and TSA's weak safeguards. Magaw, who was administrator when the Pearson contract was negotiated, admits that the agency made some mistakes. He says there should have been more checks on Pearson's spending patterns. But he is quick to point out that the agency had few program managers or contracting officers at the time. Instead, the focus was on accomplishing the mission to deploy tens of thousands of screeners in a year's time.
Along with the inspector general investigation, TSA has asked the Defense Contract Audit Agency to review the situation. Loy wants a "thorough scrub" so the agency can institute better controls on future contracts. Last January, TSA re-bid the Pearson contract. It was awarded to CPS Human Resource Services, a government agency that is jointly run by the California State Personnel Board and several local governments in and outside California. New York-based consulting firm Accenture, won a contract to handle TSA's day-to-day human resources administration.
Last year, TSA won praise for its efforts to become a performance-based organization. Even as it was trying to meet tight congressional deadlines, the agency was starting work on a results-oriented strategic plan, according to Gerald Dillingham, a member of the General Accounting Office's physical infrastructure team. But a year later, TSA has not moved off the mark. "It's understandable given all of the pressure they have been under," he says. "But there are big challenges ahead, and they need to move further."
Loy doesn't disagree, but he says much of the problem stems from TSA's mid-year move from the Transportation Department to the Homeland Security Department. Homeland Security has yet to finalize its strategic plan. "We must stay in alignment with things going on at the department," he says. "It's hard to line up with something that isn't in existence . . . . There is frustration on my part, but I can say that we are not abrogating our commitment to that work."
Developing a strategic plan will provide guidance to federal security directors as they try to manage operations at their airports. It also will aid the agency as it builds a risk-based approach to addressing transportation security, says Dillingham. By analyzing intelligence, vulnerabilities and threats, a risk-based method enables the agency to prioritize resource allocation. Such a method is instrumental in the development of a national transportation security plan. That document, which was said to be nearly finished in May, has yet to be finalized. During an interview in late August, Loy said it was on the verge of being done. But, he is reluctant to push forward until the department issues broader security documents.
"We want very much to align our game plan with the game plan that is articulated by the secretary and the broader national homeland security plan," he says. "Those are sort of biblical documents that you want to be in coordination with. . . . Am I frustrated that it wasn't done six months ago? I suppose. But the department wasn't around six months ago. I'm a combination of frustrated on one hand and understanding on the other."
Agency insiders also say the heavy focus on aviation security has slowed efforts to address other modes of transportation. Loy says that will change, but how much is unclear. Even by the most elementary measure-funding-aviation is still king of the hill. Of TSA's $4.82 billion budget request for fiscal 2004, $4.2 billion is slated for aviation security. Sixty percent of TSA's $75 million for research and development goes to aviation. The remainder is split among maritime transport, railways, highways, pipelines and public transit.
The lag in attention to non-aviation modes of transportation has left federal regulatory agencies and trade associations wondering how they'll relate to TSA. Originally, TSA planned to sign memorandums of agreement with regulatory agencies, delineating lines of authority. Only one has been signed-with the Federal Aviation Administration. Loy expects to revive the concept. Still, officials at regulatory agencies question how much influence TSA will exert over the rule-making process or safety inspections. The Federal Railway Administration is pressing Congress to clarify roles. Officials have proposed language in the FRA reauthorization bill making it clear that the agency can issue orders pertaining to safety and security. The proposal goes on to say that Homeland Security must consult FRA before issuing any security directives. FRA spokesman Warren Flatau says the agency is "thoroughly in the loop" with TSA. The legislative language is a safeguard, needed to ensure that the "proper mechanisms are in place to enable joint action," he says.
Industry representatives are more skittish about TSA's foray into regulation. For starters, there is fear of duplication and overlap between TSA and other regulatory agencies. Industry groups are unclear about who will be taking the lead. Benjamin Cooper, executive director of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines says it is especially troublesome for his industry. Both the Transportation and Energy departments regulate pipelines. To understand what is expected of it, the industry needs a coherent message from the government. Like other trade associations, AOPL developed a set of security guidelines for its members. The association did so in close coordination with longtime regulators at the Transportation and Energy departments, as well as the FBI. "Now comes along Homeland Security and TSA," Cooper says. "We're trying to manage the transition of them being in charge."
Whether for pipelines, railways or maritime transport, TSA likely will use the existing regulatory structure to enforce security mandates. Loy says there will not be an army of TSA inspectors. What remains to be seen, however, is how other agencies embrace added security enforcement responsibilities TSA imposes.
GAO noted in a June 2003 report (GAO-03-843) that Transportation Department agencies historically have focused on "maintaining operations and improving safety, not regulating security." For that reason, Transportation Department "administrators may be reluctant to assume [the new security] role, because it could alter their relationships with the industry."
If the aviation industry is any indication, TSA is bound to have an uneven relationship with industries and customers of other modes of transportation. In some cases, such as with Logan, relations are in good shape. Not so at others. It can take upwards of eight hours for new security directives to make their way from TSA headquarters to Bangor International Airport in Maine, according to Bangor director Rebecca Hupp. It's frustrating, she says, especially when members of the news media call to ask how the airport will handle the new mandates and Hupp hasn't even seen them yet.
From his perspective, Loy says these growing pains are natural for a start-up agency still trying to sort things out with those it regulates and serves. He expects improvements over the next year, especially as budget debates settle down. "I remain very positive about our efforts," he says.