GAO unsure about TSA's ability to meet security deadlines

Official says agency has yet to complete basic assessments of the technology and the additional personnel needed for comprehensive air cargo screening.

The Government Accountability Office Thursday raised fresh doubts about the Transportation Security Administration's ability to meet the congressionally imposed August 2010 deadline for screening 100 percent of air cargo.

In testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee, GAO Homeland Security Director Cathleen Berrick said TSA had made significant progress toward meeting the goal but had yet to complete basic assessments of the technology and the additional screening personnel needed for it, and could "face challenges" in acquiring these resources.

"We think more can be done on the positive side," she told the subcommittee.

Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Kip Hawley testified that TSA will meet the interim February 2009 deadline for screening 50 percent of air cargo, but stopped short of guaranteeing 100 percent coverage by 2010.

"We will meet the February 2009 deadline and progress toward August 2010," he told the subcommittee. He said that two-thirds of the cargo passed through 18 airports.

Hawley also acknowledged that TSA will not meet the Aug. 3 deadline for issuing strengthened security standards for foreign repair shops used by U.S. airlines.

But he insisted that a rulemaking delay had not deterred efforts to increase security. Hawley said TSA had adopted a policy of "rolling out" new security measures at the shops while waiting for the rulemaking process to "catch up."

He said TSA will publish the notice of proposed rulemaking next month and have the final standards ready by early next year. But in a letter to the committee, the Aeronautical Repair Association said the delay could hurt the competitiveness of U.S. repair companies by preventing the timely certification of the shops.

In other testimony, Hawley touted TSA's recent efforts to improve airline security by, among other things, deploying new passenger imaging machines capable of seeing through clothes.

He downplayed privacy concerns about the body scanners, explaining that the machines blur out the faces of the subjects and are read by screeners located where they cannot see the passengers. "There is a wall (of privacy) between the individuals and the images of the individuals," Hawley said. In another security enhancement, Hawley said TSA had launched a comprehensive retraining program for airport screeners.