'Basically, we let a domestic terrorist get on a plane'

'Basically, we let a domestic terrorist get on a plane'
© Getty Images

Lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday grilled Obama administration officials about a convicted felon who was approved for expedited airport screening last year. 

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general reported last week that a former member of a domestic terrorist organization was approved by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) 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 applying for the TSA's PreCheck trusted traveler program, despite his criminal background.

Lawmakers placed blame for the security breach on a TSA program that granted free PreCheck trials to passengers whose backgrounds had not been previously checked when airport lines became crowded.

"Last week the Inspector General released a report about a very troubling incident involving a traveler who was granted expedited security screening," Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHouse members will huddle Friday to plot next steps on Jan. 6 probe Budowsky: Liz Cheney, a Reagan Republican, and Pelosi, Ms. Democrat, seek Jan. 6 truth The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Officers recount the horror of Jan. 6 MORE (D-Miss.) said.

"Suffice it to say, the terrorist and criminal history of the traveler involved should have resulted in TSA determining that enhanced security screening was in order, not expedited screening. ... Basically, we let a domestic terrorist get on a plane." 

The TSA PreCheck program, which was established in 2013, allows passengers to pay a fee and volunteer information about themselves that is kept on file and used to later clear them when they fly.

TSA has traditionally selected passengers for free expedited screenings when regular checkpoints become backed up through a program called "managed inclusion."  Passengers who are moved over to the expedited security are allowed to keep their shoes and belts on, but TSA officials said they are still checked for explosive devices.  

The agency has said it has cut back on the free trials as the PreCheck program has become more popular, but lawmakers on the Transportation Security panel questioned the safety and fairness of the program because participants are normally charged $85 for the possibility of receiving expedited airport security screening. 

"The PreCheck program is something that people pay for," Subcommittee Chairman John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoGOP brawls over Trump on eve of first Jan. 6 hearing Senators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers House erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role MORE (R-N.Y.) said. "They pay for it and it's a service, in addition to being a risk-based security method." 

TSA Chief Risk Officer Kenneth Fletcher defended the agency's vetting of passengers who receive expedited screenings.

"There is a list of criminal disqualifiers that are permanent," he said. "[Transportation Security Officers] have had that authority … to deny an individual access to the PreCheck lane and send them to the standard screening process existed on that day."  

Fletcher told the panel that the free PreCheck trials were necessary in the beginning stage of the program, when participation among airline passengers was low. 

"I think the genesis of managed inclusion was really the [2013] Super Bowl in New Orleans," Fletcher said. 

"The airport was resource constrained. ... The challenge really becomes, how do you eliminate the risk of this large crowd of people being a target for a suicide terrorist attack," he continued. "The idea of doing a real-time threat assessment on passengers . . . a combination of explosive detection screening and with passenger screening k-9 teams and behavior detection would provide significant value to provide those travelers with an expedited screening process. That proved to be a very successful endeavor." 

Fletcher said TSA was trying to effectively use its resources when the PreCheck program was getting its sea legs.  

"At that time we had very low volume of TSA PreCheck passengers. I think today we're at about 48 or 50 percent. At that point we were at 3 or 4 percent volume as I recall," he said of the program's inception. 

"We had a lot of inefficiencies in the process, where we had dedicated TSA PreCheck lanes at many of our larger airports, but the staff was significantly underutilized and the wait times in the standard screening lane were becoming excessive," he said. 

Fletcher said the TSA offers free expedited screenings much less frequently now that the PreCheck program has topped 1 million participants.   

He added that the agency is hoping to get enough enrollment in the trusted traveler program to do away with the free trials completely. 

"We would like to be able to dial back on both managed inclusion and risk-assessment rules and replace that current volume with an enrolled population," Fletcher said.