TSA Chief Notes Progress After January’s Passenger Screening Debacle

Mark Lennihan/AP File Photo

Nine months after embarrassing revelations that federal airport screeners in a covert test had missed 95 percent of illegal passenger objects, the Transportation Security Administration has “begun the process of critical self-evaluation” under new leadership that could lead to a needed change in culture, a watchdog told lawmakers.

Homeland Security Department Inspector General John Roth, whose classified report on TSA’s lapses was leaked to the news media, said he was “gratified by the department’s response” and “hopeful that the days of TSA sweeping its problems under the rug and simply ignoring the findings and recommendations of the OIG and [Government Accountability Office] are coming to an end.”

Speaking to the House Homeland Security Transportation Security Subcommittee on Oct. 8, Roth reiterated his past frustrations with the agency’s resistance to oversight and weakly trained workforce that prioritizes efficiency over individualized threats to airline passenger safety.

“Either TSA doesn’t understand the nature of the risk, or worse, it does understand the nature of the risk and doesn’t address it,” he said, criticizing the agency’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal for proposing to cut 1,700 employees (a proposal since rejected by the newly installed administrator, Peter Neffenger). “TSA does its own covert testing, so none of this came as a surprise,” Roth continued, saying the IG’s office will continue its covert testing of screener thoroughness. “The best test of a football team is how they do on Sunday,” he said.

Neffenger, who was confirmed by the Senate in June, acknowledged the IG’s conclusions that “limitations of the technology, the systems detection standards, TSA officers’ lack of training on equipment limitations, and procedures that failed to resolve the alarms appropriately all undermined our ability to effectively screen” passengers both to facilitate speedy travel and identify threats ranging from bomb-making materials to guns and knives.

The agency’s “initial conclusion is that the screening effectiveness challenges noted by the inspector general were not merely a performance problem to be solved solely by retraining our officers,” said Neffenger, who has visited 15 airports so far and met with overseas transportation security stakeholders.

“TSA front-line officers have repeatedly demonstrated during their annual proficiency evaluations that they have the knowledge and the skill to perform the screening mission well. Nor was this principally a failure of the [advanced imaging] technology,” which has greatly enhanced TSA’s screening, he said. “The challenge can be succinctly described as a set of multidimensional factors that have influenced the conduct of screening operations, creating a disproportionate focus on screening operations efficiency rather than security effectiveness.” They focused too much on reducing passenger wait times, he added.

At a time of rising passenger volume and an increase in checkpoint screening of baggage due to new baggage fees, “these challenges range across six dimensions: leadership, technology, workforce performance, environmental influences, operating procedures, and system design,” Neffenger said.

He promised continued monitoring, improved training and “workforce messaging.”

Subcommittee Chairman John Katko, R-N.Y., said he called this seventh TSA hearing of the year because “many of these vulnerabilities have been identified and known for years, and unfortunately, prior to this year, the previous leadership within both TSA and DHS did not take steps to address these known security vulnerabilities.”

He highlighted a bill (H.R. 3102) the House passed on Oct. 6 that would require the TSA administrator to establish a risk-based, intelligence-driven screening model that subjects employees to more frequent, more randomized security screenings as well as tighten criminal background checks for prospective employees. It is pending in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he “remains concerned that TSA will continue to purchase more technologies that address the threats of yesterday as opposed to the threats of tomorrow.” He told Neffenger, “I assume the honeymoon is about over and we’re ready to move on.”

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