By Keith Laing - 04/30/14 05:06 PM EDT
The chairman of the Senate’s main transportation committee said Wednesday that the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) focus should be expanded beyond airports.
Conservative groups and lawmakers have sharply criticized the TSA for its airport security techniques such as pat-downs and X-ray scanners, which they say are invasions of airline passengers’ privacy.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) said during a hearing of the upper chamber’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that the TSA’s methods of securing airports could be used to make other vulnerable systems like railways and ports more safe.
“There is a severe lack of urgency among many in Congress to invest in the security of our other transportation systems,” Rockefeller said. ”Across the board, from our ports to our rails, we are failing to make sensible investments that will ultimately make traveling public safer, and save us money. As a result, we have left vulnerable the security of our ports and surface transportation systems, which are all critical components of the TSA’s mission, and vice versa.”
Rockefeller said TSA has done a better job securing airports that it is often given credit for, especially since it switched to its “risk-based” approach to security that involves techniques like its Pre-Check known traveler program.
“Since the TSA was created, we have seen no successful air attacks on American soil despite significant and sophisticated efforts by our enemies,” Rockefeller said. “The TSA is harnessing advances in technology while adequately balancing privacy concerns. As a result, we’ve seen shorter wait times – more than 99 percent of passengers move through security in less than 20 minutes. That is a far cry from the days when security lines were several hours long.”
The TSA’s most vocal critics have often accused the agency of providing security theater with its checkpoints at airports across the country.
But Rockefeller said on Wednesday that the agency could bring value to other transportation methods.
“While there is substantially less public focus on these areas, these systems have been the target of terrorist plots,” he said of ports and railways. “An attack on a major port – or in a crowded transit system – could be as devastating as an aviation incident.”
TSA Administrator John Pistole agreed that his agency was not just focused on securing airports.
“TSA’s primary mission is to protect the nation’s transportation systems, including aviation, mass transit, rail, highway, and pipeline, to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce,” Pistole said in testimony submitted to the panel before Wednesday’s hearing.
“Each year TSA screens approximately 640 million passengers and 1.5 billion checked and carry-on bags on domestic and international flights departing from U.S. airports,” Pistole continued. “TSA also strengthens and enhances the security of an inter-related, multi-modal transportation network that includes 751 million bus passengers and 10 billion passenger trips on mass transit each year.”
Pistole said “does not conduct frontline screening” in surface transportation modes like railways and ports, but he said the agency “engages with state, local, and private sector partners to identify ways to reduce vulnerabilities, assess risk, and improve security through collaborative efforts.
“TSA continues to work to develop security standards, assess vulnerabilities, develop plans to close vulnerabilities, and use metrics to drive risk reduction in a measurable way,” he said. “For example, TSA conducts corporate security reviews of Mass Transit agencies to include Amtrak and over-the-road bus operators through the Baseline Assessment for Security Enhancement (BASE) program. This program is a thorough security assessment of mass transit and passenger rail systems nationally and over-the-road-bus operations, performed by our Transportation Security Inspectors-Surface (TSI-S).”
Rockefeller said Wednesday that TSA had to focus on more than commercial jetliners to be as effective as lawmakers envisioned when they created the agency in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“I continue to be concerned about the gaps in general aviation security,” he said. “Let us not forget that a private plane could wreak just as much terror as a commercial jetliner.”
Rockefeller said even TSA’s airport security techniques needed to be boosted, citing a shooting at the Los Angeles International Airport last year and a recent teenage stowaway who was able to sneak onto a runway at the San Jose Airport.
“Recent incidents have further raised important questions about the security of our airports,” he said. “In November, there was a tragic shooting at Los Angeles International Airport. One TSA employee was killed and 7 others were injured. And last week, a teenager was able to clear an airport fence in California and stowaway on a flight, completely undetected, until he landed in Hawaii. If anything, these episodes underscore the need to continually reevaluate and improve our efforts.”