Lawmakers in the House took the Transportation Security Administration to task Wednesday for reports that there have been tens of thousands of security breaches at U.S. airports in the past decade.
The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations called a hearing to investigate the security of airport perimeters after reports showed there had been 25,000 breaches of security checkpoints since November 2001.
“We appreciate TSA in tracking and providing that data, but obviously, those are the ones we know about,” Chaffetz said at the start of Wednesday’s meeting. “The deep concern is, what about the ones we don't know about and the creativity and things that can happen in the future?”
Chaffetz added that he was concerned that the TSA had not conducted threat-vulnerability assessments of most U.S. airports. Fewer than 20 of the more than 400 airports for which the TSA oversees security have been reviewed.
John Sammon, the TSA’s assistant administrator for the office of Transportation Sector Network Management, responded.
“TSA secures our nation’s commercial airports through a variety of programs,” he said.
He added that “unlike checkpoint security, which is carried out exclusively by [transportation security officers], perimeter security for airports’ secured areas is a mutual responsibility shared among federal, state and local government personnel.”
“TSA works in consultation with airport operators and local law enforcement authorities to deploy personnel to secured areas of an airport, as needed, to counter the risk of criminal violence, air piracy, a risk to air carrier operations, or to address national security concerns,” Sammon added.
Chaffetz said he was “deeply concerned” about the unfinished joint-vulnerability assessments, which Sammon said were difficult to complete for all airports because they are done in tandem with the FBI.
“I absolutely don’t understand that,” Chaffetz said. “I don’t understand it, and it’s unacceptable.
"We have to be right all the time; terrorists only have to get lucky once,” he added, dismissing suggestions that the number of breaches was minimal compared to the number of passengers who use airports every day.
Democrats on the panel were critical, too, saying the TSA’s behavior-detection programs should be examined, though their remarks were more tempered than the GOP members’.
“We’ve spent $750 million on it already; they’re asking for another $250 million,” said Rep. John Tierney (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the oversight panel. “I think it’s pretty critical with that significant [amount of money] that we take a look and see if this program is actually [effective enough] in identifying potential threats to security.”
Tierney also cited a recent Government Office of Accountability report that found the TSA had been moving too slowly to update its standards for bomb-detection devices.
But he agreed with Sammon that airport perimeter security was not the sole responsibility of the TSA.
“As we evaluate these incidents and the challenges, it’s probably important for us to take the time to understand what security functions the [TSA] is responsible for. One of those is the perimeter area,” Tierney said.
“Perimeter security is primarily the responsibility of airport operators, while the TSA’s role is to ensure that operations are adhering to an operation security plan that meets federal standards,” he continued. “The agency has a difficult and unenviable task, but it’s our responsibility … to provide constructive criticism with which the TSA can strike the balance between security, convenience and cost, hopefully weighing heavily on the security.“
Chaffetz was not nearly as charitable, saying the TSA was providing “security theater” that has not “truly done the job to secure the airports to the degree that we need to.”
As he has in the past, Chaffetz pushed to use more bomb-sniffing dogs, which he said would cost between $20,000 and $30,000 — compared to about $120,000 for one of the TSA’s full-body X-ray scanners.
Amtrak Police Department K-9 Unit Inspector William Parker testified about the effectiveness of bomb-sniffing dogs.
“Dogs do not depreciate like machines do,” he said. “A dog is more capable, useful, reliable and efficient than equipment. If dogs are trained properly, and if their proficiency training is consistent, then their skill level increases with experience.”
Parker demonstrated the dogs’ capability using committee staffers.
Chaffetz said the demonstration was enough to convince him.
“The whole-body-imaging scanners have something that dogs don’t have,” Chaffetz said. “They have lobbyists. I think the challenge is we have to increase the security … but we can’t give up every civil liberty. We shouldn’t be looking at every passenger naked in order to secure the airplane.”
“The dog does not work all day,” he said, adding that employees had to be paid to manage the dogs.
Chaffetz challenged Sammon to pit 10 full-body scanners against 10 dogs to see which would discover more bombs.
Before Sammon could respond, Chaffetz suggested they agree to disagree.
“I really do believe the dogs are a better, smarter solution,” he said before moving on to another topic.