TSA’s competence in doubt

TSA’s competence in doubt

The competence of the Transportation Security Administration is being called into question after agents failed to find fake explosives and weapons in more than 60 tests at the nation’s largest airports. 

Acting TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway was removed from office on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the report’s findings went public, and lawmakers are demanding a broader overhaul of the agency before it’s too late.

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Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAmerica's divide widens: Ignore it no longer Trump gives Grenell his Cabinet chair after he steps down German lawmaker, US ambassador to Germany trade jabs MORE (R-Ind.) said the results of the undercover TSA probe were “shocking,” and called for “immediate action.”

“This has got to be a top-to-bottom effort looking at the trainers, how we hire them, how we train them, how they perform their jobs, looking at the equipment that’s supposed to detect a lot of this stuff,” Coats said on Fox News.

The TSA is coming under scrutiny, after the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general (IG) documented a series of undercover stings in which agents tried to pass through security with prohibited items.

The undercover agents made it through security in nearly all the tests — 67 of 70 — including one instance where a TSA screener failed to find a fake bomb, even after the undercover agent set off a magnetometer. The screener reportedly let the agent through with the fake bomb taped to his back, having missed it during a pat-down.

The leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee expressed alarm over the findings, warning they could encourage groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to attempt an attack.

“Terrorist groups like ISIS take notice when TSA fails to intercept 67 out of 70 attempts by undercover investigators to penetrate airport checkpoints with simulated weapons and explosives,” Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate MORE (R-S.D.) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA names DC headquarters after agency's first Black female engineer Mary W. Jackson NASA, SpaceX and the private-public partnership that caused the flight of the Crew Dragon Lobbying world MORE (D-Fla.) said in a statement.

“We expect the department to address the results of recent security tests, and what changes it will make to fill security gaps and create a culture of accountability.”

The White House sought to contain the damage and reassure airline passengers it is safe to fly.

Press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama still has confidence in the TSA, which was created to prevent the security breaches that allowed al Qaeda to take down four American airliners on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The American public should feel confident traveling in airports across the country,” he said. 

Earnest said the report raised “specific concerns” about security procedures, and he expects the agency to adopt recommendations on retraining employees and retesting screening equipment. 

He also sought to cast blame on the Senate, arguing lawmakers had acted too slowly on the nomination of Coast Guard Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger to be TSA director.

“We would like to see Congress act more quickly to confirm him and allow him to get on the job,” Earnest said, noting that the upper chamber had held just one hearing on Neffenger’s nomination since Obama picked him in April. 

Republicans rejected any connection, noting that the president took six months to nominate a new TSA director. They also said Neffenger has not yet responded to some written inquiries from members of the Commerce Committee, which is vetting his nomination.

“I understand the White House is raising some concerns about the lack of a confirmed TSA administrator. But folks, the White House is the cause of the delay,” Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Ernst: Renaming Confederate bases is the 'right thing to do' despite 'heck' from GOP Advocacy groups pressure Senate to reconvene and boost election funding MORE (R-Ky.), said in an email. 

Should Neffenger be confirmed, he will likely face heavy pressure from lawmakers to show that potential security holes have been addressed.

Most of the IG’s findings, which were first reported by ABC News, remain classified.

But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson confirmed that the TSA’s “Red Team,” a group trained in security evasion, had conducted tests to “measure and enhance our capabilities and techniques as threats evolve.” 

While Johnson downplayed the report, arguing the numbers “never look good out of context,” he moved swiftly to relieve Carraway of his duties as acting TSA director.

“Acting Deputy Director, Mark Hatfield will lead TSA until a new Acting Administrator is appointed. I thank Melvin Carraway for his eleven years of service to TSA and his 36 years of public service to this nation,” Johnson said in a statement. 

Hatfield becomes the second acting administrator the TSA has had the resignation of John Pistole last year.

Democrats said Tuesday that the failed bomb test results showed Neffenger needed to be confirmed quickly to take over the TSA on a full-time basis.

“While we value acting appointees for their commitment to public service, I believe that TSA needs the depth of experience and leadership that only a permanent Administrator can provide,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement.

“Vice Admiral Neffenger’s confirmation is necessary so we can properly begin to address the challenges facing TSA. I urge the Senate to swiftly take up and approve his nomination.”

Jordan Fabian contributed to this report.