TSA faces grilling on expedited screenings

TSA faces grilling on expedited screenings
© Getty Images

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials will face lawmakers on Wednesday for the first time since a watchdog report revealed the agency cleared a convicted felon for expedited airport screening.

The House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security will hold a hearing on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the path forward for TSA PreCheck, the agency's known-passenger screening program, according to officials with the panel. 

Subcommittee Chairman John Katko (R-N.Y.), said he is sympathetic to the program despite the recent report, but believes it can be improved.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Over the last three years, TSA has adopted a more common sense, risk-based approach to passenger screening through the implementation of its PreCheck program," he said in a statement about the Wednesday hearing.  

"PreCheck has fundamentally changed the way Americans think about passenger screening in a post-9/11 world, and I believe it should continue expanding," Katko continued. "However, in order to do so, the program should grow and mature in a manner that saves taxpayer dollars and improves the experience of the traveling public while not compromising security in any way.

"This hearing will examine the current state of PreCheck, as well as evaluate TSA's approach to expanding enrollment into the program," he added. "I look forward to hearing from each of our witnesses on how the program can be further improved."   

TSA Chief Risk Officer Kenneth Fletcher is scheduled to testify at the House hearing and will likely face questions about the watchdog report.

The PreCheck program, which has been touted as part of the TSA's move to "risk-based" security techniques, allows passengers to pay an $85 fee and volunteer information to the agency in exchange for the possibility of receiving expedited screening for five years. 

The program has come under fire since a report from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general revealed that the TSA approved a convicted felon who is a former member of a domestic terrorist organization for expedited airport security in June 2014. 

The Homeland Security watchdog said the passenger, whose name was not revealed, was cleared for expedited screening without even applying for the PreCheck program, despite his criminal background.

"In this circumstance, the TSO [transportation security officer] recognized the sufficiently notorious convicted felon based on media coverage, and verified the traveler's identity documents. Upon scanning the traveler's boarding pass, the TSA received a TSA PreCheck eligibility notification,” the report said.  

“However the TSO knew of the traveler's ... disqualifying criminal convictions,” the report continued. “The TSO followed standard operating procedures and reported this to the supervisory TSO who then directed the TSO to take no further action and allow the traveler through the TSA PreCheck lane.”

TSA officials defended the expedited screening program, which is part of a broad series of “risk-based initiatives,” that have been touted as a sea change in U.S. airport security. The measures direct all airport security officials to focus on passengers who are most likely to pose threats to flights. 

“TSA continues to enhance its layered security approach through state-of-the-art technologies, improved passenger identification techniques and trusted traveler programs, and best practices to strengthen transportation security across all modes of transportation,” the agency said in a statement that was provided to The Hill last week. 

“All passengers, including those with TSA PreCheck on boarding passes, are subject to a robust security approach that employs multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen,” the agency added. “Together, these layers provide enhanced security and a stronger, more protected transportation system for the traveling public.” 

TSA officials tout the 1 million airline passengers who enrolled in the program since its inception in 2013. 

"The continued growth and passenger participation in TSA PreCheck affirms our commitment to the evolution of our intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to aviation security," acting TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway said in a statement. "This milestone is a testament to the outstanding collaborative work between TSA, airports, airlines and most importantly, the traveling public. With more than 330 application centers nationwide, it is easier than ever to apply for expedited screening."

Travel industry groups also lauded the PreCheck program, although they acknowledge the concern raised by the recent report.

“Business travelers want a secure aviation system, which includes passenger checkpoints in airports that minimize hassles and delays," Global Business Travel Association Executive Director Michael McCormick said in a statement. "PreCheck, Global Entry and other risk-based programs are essential for those road warriors who travel the most, as delays getting through airport security cost them time and money." 

McCormick said the 2014 felon incident shows the PreCheck program still needs to be fine-tuned, however. 

"There still needs to be stringent oversight and review by the TSA to ensure these trusted traveler programs are working as intended," he said. "Situations like the one cited by the Office of Inspector General have the potential to undermine confidence in the airport system as a whole."