Lawmakers grill TSA about 'potential ties to terrorism' in workforce

Lawmakers grill TSA about 'potential ties to terrorism' in workforce

Lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee grilled officials from the Transportation Security Administration on Tuesday over the agency's vetting of employees after a series of airport security lapses.  

The chairman of the panel's transportation security subcommittee, Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoOvernight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Senate panel advances bill to protect government devices against cyber threats House passes amendment to block funding for transgender troops ban MORE (R-N.Y.), said reports about a TSA worker smuggling guns into the Atlanta airport and other employees of the agency failing to detect fake explosive devices show the need for drastic changes.

"A few weeks ago, news outlets reported test results showing its screeners failed to detect prohibitive threat items 96 percent of the time. And just last week, we learned that 73 airport employees with potential ties to terrorism were issued credentials which allowed them to get access to secure areas of airports," he said. 

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"All of these findings individually are concerning, and in the aggregate, well, they just shake the public's confidence and only further demonstrate the need for steady leadership at TSA to work through the many issues that plague this agency," Katko said.   

The hearing came on the heels of an embarrassing report by 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. Much of its findings still remain classified. 

The undercover agents made it through security in nearly all the tests — 67 of 70 — 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.

Katko said a separate report from the Homeland Security watchdog that drew less attention than the failed bomb test showed "73 airport employees with potential ties to terrorism were issued credentials granting them access to work in the secure areas of our nation’s airports."

He said both of the watchdog's findings showed why it is important for the TSA to properly check employees' backgrounds before and after they hire them. 

"Aviation workers are supposed to be thoroughly vetted, due to their continuing access to sensitive areas of airports and the fact they hold a position of trust within the transportation system," Katko said. 

"The reality is, in this post-9/11 world, that the terrorist threat is metastasizing, and we as a nation must remain responsive to any holes in the security of our transportation systems and ensure that the protocols keep pace with the ever-evolving threat landscape," he continued. "Improving the vetting of the aviation workers who have access to these sensitive areas of airports can help … close another back-door vulnerability at our nation's airports." 

TSA officials told members of the House panel the agency has made "key enhancements" to it vetting process.

"These include the ability for airports to upload immigration and identity documents, to conduct more robust identity verification and immigration checks, and implementing system logic to reject inaccurate information," said Stacey Fitzmaurice, deputy assistant administrator for the agency's Office of Intelligence and Analysis. 

"We will continue to work on improvement in this area," she said.

Fitzmaurice said airports are supposed to play a role in checking the background of employees who have broad access to the nation's aviation facilities. 

"Airport operators are responsible for reviewing FBI criminal history records and ultimately making a determination about granting badges to workers that provide secure access to our nation's airport according to TSA's requirements," she said. 

Lawmakers on the transportation security subcommittee were not in a forgiving mood.

"So you're telling me we've got folks walking around unescorted in secured areas in our airports and we don't have their Social Security number? … Holy cow," Rep. Buddy CarterEarl (Buddy) Leroy CarterThirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill Federal board votes to rename Georgia's 'Runaway Negro Creek' to 'Freedom Creek' 3 signs the PBMs are desperately in need of reform MORE (R-Ga.) said. 

Carter said he travels regularly through the Atlanta airport, which was the site of the 2014 gun smuggling incident, and he is concerned about his family members who do the same.  

"I'm from Georgia and I travel at least once, usually twice [per week] through the busiest airport in the world, through Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport," he said. "And to think we may have people walking around in that airport who we don't even know what their name is. We don't have their Social Security number. 

"I'm OK. I'm pretty confident I can take care of myself, to a certain extent," Carter continued. "But my son is coming up later today. I want to make daggum sure he's OK." 

The Homeland Security panel quickly approved a pair of measures intended to address the airport security breaches during a markup that was held immediately after Tuesday's hearing.