TSA chief says screener background checks complete by fall

The head of the Transportation Security Administration Tuesday told lawmakers concerned about the trustworthiness of current passenger screeners that the agency plans to finish background checks by Oct. 1 on the roughly 60,000 screeners hired last year.

In rush to hire and train screeners who handle approximately 600 million passengers a year at a "wartime mobilization pace," TSA hired contractors to conduct preliminary checks on applicants, TSA Administrator James Loy testified. Once screeners passed these initial checks, TSA offered them jobs, contingent on a more thorough background check conducted at a later date by the Office of Personnel Management.

As of Tuesday, roughly half of passenger screeners have not had their applications submitted to an OPM check, Loy said. But he assured House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee members that the process would be complete by October.

Lawmakers said that they were worried that in the agency's haste to put screeners in place at the nation's 429 commercial airports by the congressionally mandated Nov. 19, 2002 deadline, TSA ended up hiring a significant number of untrustworthy screeners, some with criminal pasts and others who provided false information on application forms.

Airports in Florida, Minnesota, New York and California have recently discovered "numerous" screeners with dubious backgrounds, according to Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the subcommittee. "It is clear to me that if OPM had conducted a more detailed review of all screeners, these troubling pasts would have been uncovered," he said.

"Airports and passengers all around this country need to know that the people screening passengers and luggage are trustworthy," Rogers added. "One mistake or one unsavory character and you have one huge, potentially fatal circumstance on your hands."

While acknowledging that the tight deadline for hiring presented a significant challenge to TSA, Rogers and Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., ranking member of the subcommittee, suggested that management problems at the agency might be partly to blame for the untrustworthy screeners currently on the job.

The four contractors TSA hired to conduct preliminary checks on applicants, chose screeners too hastily, after only a "cursory" background review including a name check, reference check and checking fingerprints against a national FBI database, which may not have included information about state criminal convictions since not all states submit information to the FBI database, according to Sabo.

"It is clear that the process [for hiring screeners] was convoluted and confusing," Rogers said. "We need a diagram just to track the seemingly duplicative responsibilities of each company and [the] federal agencies [involved]."

But at the hearing, Loy said the checks performed by contractors were not "cursory" or duplicative. NCS Pearson conducted initial reviews of screener applicants and offered 129,000 "conditional employment" based on the interviews, skills tests and background investigations. Two additional contractors analyzed applicants' fingerprints, and a fourth helped TSA make decisions on whether to hire applicants with borderline backgrounds.

In the process of running preliminary checks, the contractors flagged applicants who had criminal backgrounds or other dubious circumstances. They referenced a list of 28 crimes that automatically disqualify applicants as screeners. Those who had been convicted of one of those crimes automatically received a "red" flag and TSA fired them as soon as it verified the background check results, Loy said. Contractors placed other applicants in a "yellow" category, meaning they may have committed a crime that is not on the list of 28, or investigators may have uncovered questionable credit history, tax liens or other financial problems. TSA reviews the yellow cases one by one and makes a determination about whether to hire the employee, based on his or her specific circumstances.

So far, the flagging process has caused TSA to fire 1,208 screeners, Loy said. The vast majority of these were disqualified because of felony convictions. Considering both the preliminary checks and the official background checks that OPM is running, lawmakers should have no reason to doubt that all airport passenger screeners are trustworthy, he said.