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TSA will 'move aggressively' to provide screener guidance

The Transportation Security Administration will conduct a "comprehensive" evaluation of how security screeners are operating at airports, and then "move aggressively" to give airport directors recommendations on whether they should use private or government workers, an agency spokesman said Wednesday.

TSA hired BearingPoint Inc. of McClean, Va., to conduct a 45-day evaluation and comparison of private baggage and passenger screeners versus federal workers at airports across the country. The contract, valued at about $350,000, is a critical step in helping TSA give airport directors guidance on whether to use private or public workers.

Darrin Kayser, TSA spokesman, said BearingPoint will examine every aspect of using public or private screeners.

"We're going to be looking at everything, including costs," he said. "It's going to be very comprehensive."

Under federal law, airports across the country will be able to decide in November 2004 whether they want to hire private companies for screening services or have those services provided by the federal government.

When TSA was created almost two years ago, Congress stipulated that airports must use federal workers to screen passengers and baggage for weapons and explosives. However, legislators included a provision that permits airports to opt out of the federal program and hire private screeners starting in November 2004. The evaluation contract with BearingPoint is part of TSA's requirement to develop a program describing how airports can exercise that flexibility.

Once the 45-day evaluation is complete, TSA will analyze the results and "quickly develop the qualitative and quantitative data that will be necessary for airport directors" to make decisions, Kayser said.

"We're going to work hard and move aggressively to get that information to them so they can make the best decisions they can," Kayser said. However, he could not say exactly when TSA would make its recommendations.

An airport industry representative told Government Executive on Wednesday that airport directors would like to have guidance and recommendations from TSA by the spring so they can begin planning for the November deadline.

Congress required airports to begin using federal screeners shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, in creating TSA, Congress allowed five airports to participate in a pilot program under which they use private screening companies. Those airports are in Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Kayser said BearingPoint will go to each of the airports in the pilot program, and then move to select airports elsewhere across the country.

Kayser also indicated that BearingPoint will actually test and compare the ability of private and federal screeners to detect explosive devices and weapons. A recent report from the acting inspector general of the Homeland Security Department criticized TSA's testing procedures for screeners. The report said TSA used a training program that "maximized the likelihood that students would pass." Among other things, the report said trainers rehearsed test questions with students before final exams, and some questions were crafted in ways that made the correct answers seem obvious.

Kayser said the IG's report focused only on the written test, and not on other aspects of the training program. He said screeners are not certified until they prove their performance, and he likened the whole testing process to getting a driver's license.

"When you get a driver's license you take a written portion of the driver's license test and then you get in a car and drive with an instructor and the instructor makes sure you can drive the vehicle, and that's the same situation we had with our screeners."