A TSA agent screens passengers' belongings at Miami International Airport in November 2015.

A TSA agent screens passengers' belongings at Miami International Airport in November 2015. Lynne Sladky/AP

Are TSA Leaders the ‘Biggest Bullies in Government?'

Attrition and poor management make TSA an "agency in crisis," witnesses tell lawmakers.

A toxic culture and poor management are causing a mass exodus of Transportation Security Administration employees, lawmakers and agency whistleblowers said during a congressional hearing Wednesday.

Senior leadership at the agency has made a practice of hiring managers with no experience and few skills, three TSA employees told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The employees cited repeated examples in which they were retaliated against for highlighting wrongdoing at the agency, which they said were emblematic of a widespread problem that has cultivated a fearful workforce.

As a result, 104 screeners are leaving TSA each week due to attrition, according to committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. In 2014, 4,644 TSA employees left the agency, while just 373 joined.

“What does that tell you?” Chaffetz asked. “It tells you there’s probably a management problem there.”

Jay Brainard, the federal security director for TSA’s Kansas Office of Security Operations, called his employer an “agency in crisis.”

“TSA remains in crisis as a result of poor leadership and oversight of many of our senior leadership appointments which have taken place over the past several years, some of which still serve in key positions within our agency today,” Brainard said.

The agency employs the “biggest bullies in government,” he added, with leaders intimidating their subordinates as a management tactic.

“We have low morale, a lack of trust, and field leaders who are fearful to speak out, and for good reason,” Brainard said. “People at all levels of the agency, both in the field and at headquarters have spent most of their time having to constantly look over their shoulder when doing the right thing.”

Lawmakers and the witnesses said the situation was detracting from employees’ ability to carry out the TSA mission of ensuring aviation and airport security. The staffing shortages will also lead to longer wait times for passengers, with one employee warning that “every day this summer will be like the day after Thanksgiving.”

The witnesses recounted stories of employees being forced to relocate or demoted after blowing the whistle. Andrew Rhoades, the assistant federal security director in the Office of Security Operations, pointed to examples in which TSA manipulated wait time data. Mark Livingston, the program manager in the Office of Chief Risk Officer, said management has forced employees shedding a light on these types of issues to leave the agency.

“Senior organizational leaders use retaliation as a means to silence those who would report violations, security concerns or operational issues by forcing employees into early retirement or resignations,” Livingston said.

At times, the conversation turned to a larger discussion about the federal civil service. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., used the occasion to deplore efforts to expand the probationary period for federal employees from one to two years. Such a reform, Cummings said, would only make it easier for agencies like TSA to retaliate against whistleblowers, as feds on probation do not enjoy the same due process protections as do normal workers. Cummings also noted TSA employs 6,000 fewer transportation security officers than it did four years ago, repeating a common refrain in government that TSA employees were being asked to “do more with less.”

TSA employees are already more vulnerable than the rest of the federal workforce, as they do not fall under Title 5 and therefore are not entitled to the same appeal rights.

“We have to make sure those employees have the protections and the rights to be able to do their jobs,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., upon hearing of the reports of bad management at TSA, said virtually every government agency suffers from insufficient leadership. He argued TSA’s failures highlight the need to de-federalize airport security.

“Why are we doing this?” Mulvaney asked. “Why wouldn’t it be better to let private services perform this function?”

Another lawmaker said TSA should not become another issue in which the solution is to throw more money at it. Livingston emphasized the problem was not money, but people.

“If you don’t sustain top-quality people, you’re not going to get the best workforce,” Livingston said. “If you don’t take care of the people you hire, they’re not going to stay.”