Senators: TSA clearing felon 'unacceptable'

Senators: TSA clearing felon 'unacceptable'
© Getty Images

A bipartisan pair of senators said Thursday it is "unacceptable" that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials approved a convicted felon 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 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

The top ranking lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said Thursday that they are troubled by the revelations in a letter to Acting TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway. 

“TSA PreCheck was designed to employ risk-based security (RBS) screening to make more efficient use of TSA's resources and improve passenger security. We are concerned, however, about troubling reports detailing potential security gaps in TSA's PreCheck screening,” Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff MORE (R-S.D.) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Climate change turning US into coffee country Elon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight How will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? MORE (D-Fla.) wrote.  

“Two recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports indicate that a convicted domestic terrorist qualified for expedited screening, and that TSA has accepted questionable potential security risks in the expedited screening process it deploys in airports across the nation,” the lawmakers continued. “PreCheck ... has been popular among the travelling public; however, we must ensure appropriate vetting so unacceptable risk is not introduced into the system.” 

The TSA PreCheck program, which was established in 2013, allows passengers to pay an $85 fee and volunteer information about themselves that is kept on file and used to later clear them when they fly for a five-year period.

TSA selected passengers in the program’s early days for free expedited screenings when regular checkpoints become backed up through a program called Managed Inclusion. Passengers who were 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 the senators said they still had questions about previous recipients of the expedited screening.  

“Although all passengers are now vetted through the Secure Flight program upon making a flight reservation, our understanding is that expedited airport screening available through PreCheck lanes is intended for low-risk passengers,” the lawmakers wrote. “When TSA piloted PreCheck in October 2011, 1.5 million frequent flyers were invited to participate, but the DHS OIG has pointed out that background screenings were not performed at that time.” 

TSA officials have defended the expedited screening programs, which are part of a broad series of “risk-based initiatives” that have been touted as a sea change in U.S. airport security because they 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 after the watchdog report was released. 

“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’s statement continued. “Together, these layers provide enhanced security and a stronger, more protected transportation system for the traveling public.” 

Thune and Nelson sent TSA’s Carraway a list of six questions about the expedited screenings they said must be answered by April 15 because “the safety of the traveling public and security of our aviation system are critical.”