TSA chief denies screeners tipped to security testing

Transportation Security Administrator Kip Hawley acknowledged Wednesday that an internal communications division made a mistake by sending out an e-mail referring to possible covert testing of airport security screeners, but insisted it did not violate the integrity of the test.

"There was no intent on the part of anyone involved in that e-mail to alert screeners of a test," Hawley said. "There's been no tip off, no cheating." But that view was challenged by House Homeland Security Committee members of both parties and by the former TSA inspector general. Because of the inconveniences the traveling public endures in the interest of greater airline security, "when we have TSA management tipping off airport security officials about covert testing, we have a credibility and accountability problem," Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said. "Our government cannot play on our fears of an attack and then try to cheat its way through its mid-term exams."

Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection Subcommittee ranking member Dan Lungren, R-Calif., also questioned Hawley's interpretation of the April 2006 incident and said he wanted to see the Homeland Security Department inspector general's conclusion.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., noted reports of screeners failing tests at airports in his district and asked if Hawley could offer "any assurance" to his constituents that air travel was secure. Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, conducted an aggressive cross examination of Hawley, demanding that if covert testing of screening was to occur as described in the e-mail, "How can you say there was no cheating? Was the cover blown?"

When Hawley said the Homeland Security inspector general would determine that fact, Green replied loudly, "This is about truth and the truth is the cover was blown."

Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., said he could not understand how Hawley could say there was no problem when he admitted the e-mail was a mistake. "It appears to be an open-and-shut case," he said. Hawley tried to draw a distinction between a management mistake and an integrity breach. "Do we cheat on tests? The facts do not bear that out," he said.

The administrator said the e-mail was sent by TSA's NETHUB communication section because the originator thought testing was being conducted by the FAA and the Transportation Department, which should not have been involved. He noted the e-mail was recalled by a supervisor within 13 minutes.

But Clark Kent Ervin, the original TSA inspector general, said it "absolutely was an integrity issue." The purpose of the e-mail, Ervin said, "was to alert the screeners in order to improve their performance on the tests." He noted the e-mail cited the nature of the test and even described the agents who might be conducting the trials. Ervin said the e-mail was "part of a pattern" at TSA of failing to improve airport screening but not holding anyone accountable.

"The person who sent that e-mail and everyone who received it should be summarily fired for compromising the security of the United States," he said. Ervin and committee members cited findings from GAO and other surveys showing high rates of failure by airport screeners to detect weapons and explosives.

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