Reports: Airport screener performance 'poor'

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Two classified reports presented to Congress Thursday on security gaps at the nation’s airports resulted in a call for an “emergency meeting” to address the vulnerabilities.

The gaps were found after the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General and the General Accounting Office conducted covert testing of airport passenger screeners. The tests were initially performed to evaluate any differences in performance between government screeners and private company screeners hired as part of a pilot project by the Transportation Security Administration. 

“There is not a sufficient basis to determine conclusively whether the pilot airport screeners performed at a level equal to or greater than that of federal screeners,” said DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin during testimony before the House Aviation Subcommittee.  Data from covert testing “suggests that they performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly.”

Most of the testing results, however, were sealed and delivered to the committee during a classified briefing.

“The most disturbing thing we heard from the inspector general is that both the federal and the private screeners performed equally poorly,” said Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla.

“I think we need an emergency meeting” with DHS top officials “within 10 days,” Mica said.  The system isn’t working “whether it’s private or federal, to the degree it should and that’s just for finding certain types of threats,” he said.

The current screeners can’t deal with “the type of threat we see with an explosive device” that someone might try to sneak through a security checkpoint, Mica said. Screeners are less likely to detect such threats given “the current training, with the current equipment and technology and the current deployment of resources,” he said.

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the reports showed that screening is no better today than it was 17 years ago.  “The inadequacies and loopholes in the system are phenomenal,” he said.

The call for an emergency meeting was acknowledged by David Stone, the TSA’s acting administrator.  Stone said he would welcome the opportunity to sit down in a closed session and discuss the security concerns.  However, Stone noted that the performance tests were "intended to break the system … to point out weaknesses.” 

Stone said the screener workforce has shown a 70 percent increase in job performance since the TSA began conducting tests.

But Ervin said he had no idea how Stone’s agency was measuring performance and that Thursday was “the first time I’ve heard that [70 percent] number.”

“TSA’s tight controls over the pilot program restricted flexibility and innovation that contractors might have implemented to perform at a level exceeding that of federal workers,” Ervin told the committee.

Congress federalized the airport screener workforce after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and put the TSA in charge of the operation. The move was supposed to provide for better hiring, training and performance.  But the screener force has been plagued with problems from the start, including the hiring a number of people with criminal backgrounds.

Initially the TSA hired 56,000 screeners, a number its budget couldn’t sustain. That figure has been cut to 45,000 today, Stone said.

Congress, frustrated by the lack of success in the federal program and responding to complaints from airport operators, approved a pilot program in which five airports — San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; Jackson, Wyo.; and Kansas City, Mo.— were allowed to use screeners hired by private companies with the proviso that they be subjected to the same hiring, training, payroll and testing standards as federal screeners.