TSA nominee: Failed bomb tests 'disturbs me'

TSA nominee: Failed bomb tests 'disturbs me'

President Obama’s nominee to take over the Transportation Security Administration told lawmakers Wednesday that he is disturbed by the agency’s recent failure to find fake bombs and weapons in tests at almost all of America's busiest airports.

“It disturbs me," Coast Guard Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger told the Senate Homeland Security Committee during a confirmation hearing.  

"And if confirmed, it is the immediate priority ... to address those findings, to close those gaps immediately but then to look systemically at what the issues are that brought that forth in the first place,” he continued. 

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Neffenger was nominated by the president before the TSA came under fire for a report from the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general that documented a series of undercover stings in which agents tried to pass through security with prohibited items.

Testers were able to make it through airport security with prohibited items 67 of 70 times, including one instance in which 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.

Lawmakers asked Neffenger how he would handle the failed bomb tests if confirmed. 

“I mean, it's not my words, but other people have termed what TSA does as security theater, which let me first say there is some deterrent effect and positive effect for those checkpoints, for that theater,” the panel’s chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said. “But do you acknowledge the fact that it's simply not working?” 

Neffenger responded by saying he supports the TSA’s efforts in recent years to move from a one-sized-fits all approach to airport security to a so-called “risk-based” system that takes into account factors like passenger behavior and encourages programs like the agency's PreCheck program, where passengers volunteer background information in exchange for possibly expedited screening at airports. 

“I'm a big fan of known-traveler programs,” he said. “I'm a big fan of trusted-traveler programs. I'm a member of Global Entry myself. I did that for a good reason ... partly to move myself through the system, but [also] to participate in the system in a way that I thought the system needed me to.” 

He added that the failed bomb tests would help him identify changes that need to be made at TSA. 

“Although disturbing and of great concern, the IG's findings are exactly what you need to find out to determine whether your system is effective,” he said. 

Before being tapped for the TSA post, Neffenger played a high-profile role in the Obama administration’s response to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as the Coast Guard’s Deputy National Incident Commander. 

Democrats have sought to defuse criticism of the TSA's failed bomb tests by pointing out that the Republican-led Senate has yet to approve the president's choice to lead the agency.

Democrats on the panel Wednesday praised his work at the Coast Guard, saying he would likely boost morale at TSA.. 

“When you look at agency morale, Coast Guard, as I recall, has very high morale... As we know, TSA does not,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said. 

“There's got to be some lessons learned," he added. "What can we learn from the Coast Guard with respect to high morale and help improve that morale of the folks who work at TSA."

Neffenger said the morale of TSA employees depended on good leadership. 

“To me, morale begins with a clear sense of mission and a clear sense of importance, and then a leadership that invests in the mission, in the people who are performing that mission,” he said. 

“You have to have alignment throughout your organization, because if you say the mission is the most important, but then you start measuring other things, then the mission is not the most important, and that begins to affect morale,” Neffenger continued. 

The Coast Guard vice admiral also touted his military background. 

“I think you invest in the people. You train them. You set and communicate clear standards. You engage with the workforce,” he said. 

“And one of the things that you grow up in the military is an understanding that you've got to be out and you have to talk to your workforce,” Neffenger continued. “Again, they're the people who do the work.” 

Neffenger’s nomination was approved last week by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 

If he is confirmed, Neffenger will be the first fulltime administrator of the TSA’s since its long-term director, John Pistole, resigned at the beginning of the year.