The House Government Reform Committee launched an "extensive review" Monday into the operations of the Transportation Security Administration, with a special emphasis on airline passenger screening.
The announcement comes after recent reports by the General Accounting Office and Homeland Security Department that found problems with passenger screening, as well as a security breach last week in which bags containing box cutters and other suspicious items were found on two Southwest Airlines planes.
"Despite significant seizures of prohibited items from passengers going through TSA security checkpoints, [last] week's events highlight possible weaknesses in the system which need to be addressed," committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said in an Oct. 18 letter to TSA Administrator James Loy announcing the review.
The committee has begun its review by asking TSA for specific information about screening procedures, including: a written overview of testing procedures and training criteria used to certify screeners, information relating to the annual screener certification program, performance measures for all contractors hired to conduct screening testing and training, an explanation of the command structure for each passenger screening checkpoint, and information relating to TSA's program for covert testing of screening operations.
Davis said recent reports by GAO and the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department found "significant weaknesses in the testing and training procedures for TSA airport screeners." The GAO report cited deficient supervisory training programs and a failure to collect adequate information on screener performance in detecting prohibited objects, Davis said. The inspector general's investigation reported that screener testing was designed to maximize the likelihood that students would pass tests, rather than ensuring that competent and well-trained employees were operating explosive detection systems.
TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser said the agency is "committed to continuously improving our systems" and is "looking forward to working with Congressman Davis and responding to all of his questions in a timely manner." TSA has previously noted that it has a multi-layered approach for aviation security, relying on multiple detection systems. Loy told the House Government Reform Committee during a hearing last week that transportation is "radically more secure" today than before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Last Friday, TSA ordered a search of every commercial plane in the country after the box cutters and other suspicious items were found in the restrooms of two Southwest Airlines planes during routine maintenance checks.
By the end of the day Friday, TSA and the FBI were questioning a 20-year-old college student, Nathaniel Heatwole, in connection with the security breaches. According to a Monday Associated Press report, Heatwole told authorities the first bag was carried onto a Southwest plane at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Sept. 12-the day after the two-year anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks-and the second bag was smuggled onto a Sept. 15 Southwest flight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Notes inside each bag indicated the items were intended to challenge TSA's checkpoint security procedures.
Heatwole, a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., is from Damascus, Md. He was scheduled to make an initial appearance in federal court in Baltimore on Monday afternoon.