Lawmakers press TSA on 'alarming' airport security gaps

Lawmakers press TSA on 'alarming' airport security gaps

Lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee pressed Transportation Security Administration officials on "alarming" airport security gaps that federal watchdogs have said have been exposed in recent internal tests. 

TSA has been under fire since it was revealed that its workers failed to find fake explosives and weapons at almost all of America's busiest airports in tests that were conducted by Homeland Security Department’s inspector general earlier this year.  

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) told lawmakers on Tuesday that it it has found "TSA has not consistently evaluated the overall effectiveness of new technologies before adopting them." 

ADVERTISEMENT

Lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee said the agency's findings about TSA are disturbing as the agency tries to restore confidence after the earlier bomb test failures. 

"Having been around since we formed TSA and one of the original authors of the legislation, 14 years behind us. Unfortunately, we don't have much progress and success of the major purpose that we set out for," said Rep. John MicaJohn Luigi MicaHillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Lawmaker sees political payback in fight over 'deepfakes' measure | Tech giants to testify at hearing on 'censorship' claims | Google pulls the plug on AI council Lawmaker alleges political payback in failed 'deepfakes' measure GOP chairman slams ‘pitiful’ FEMA response in Louisiana MORE (R-Fla.), who has been vocal critic of the TSA for years. 

"The GAO report from this week just confirms that in just about every area of operations," Mica continued. "On page 3 is sort of a summary. He says, our most recent covert testing in September 2015, the failures included -- this is TSA failures, included failures in the technology, failures in TSA procedures and human error. We found layers of security simply missing." 

The original report about the failed airport bomb tests, which was released last spring, documented a series of undercover sting operations in which agents tried to pass through airport security checkpoints with prohibited items.

Much of its findings remain classified, but 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. One screener reportedly let the agent through with the fake bomb taped to his back, having missed it during a pat-down.

Mica cited a similar report about TSA bomb test failures from 2007 on Tuesday, saying the latest report about airport security gaps is "very alarming" because the problem has gotten worse since then. 

"This reporting from USA Today that screeners failed 75 percent of the time in finding dangerous materials and items that posed a threat 75 percent of the time, with 30,000 screeners," the outspoken TSA critic said. "We're now at 46,000 screeners and most recently, we've had this leak where the failure rate had been as high, and this is a report publicly obtained of 95 percent failure. I think we need a complete overhaul." 

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, who was confirmed by the Senate after the failed bomb tests told lawmakers on Tuesday that he has strived to make changes to the agency since taking over in July. 

"I'm now four months into the job and I've traveled to dozens of airports and federal air marshal offices across the country," Neffenger said. 

"As I have stated in previous hearings on this topic, my immediate priority has been to pursue solutions to the inspector general's recent covert testing findings which were unfortunately leaked to the media in May of this year," Neffenger continued. "And we are making significant progress in doing so." 

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee were willing to give Neffenger more room to make changes at the TSA than their Republican counterparts like Mica. 

"I really welcome your ascension to this office," Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyTrump abandons plan to dissolve Office of Personnel Management: report Democrats debate scope of impeachment charges House Democrats rebuke State Department for 'reversal' on Israeli settlements MORE (D-Va.) said. "My confidence in you is reinforced when I read your testimony about the determination of TSA on root causes. And you said, the underlying screening effectiveness and technology challenges -- you have said, a disproportional focus in the past has been on screening operations efficiency rather than security effectiveness, which is, after all, the mission." 

Federal watchdogs who have have take the TSA to task before also credited Neffenger with improving airport security since the agency failed to find fake explosives and weapons in internal tests at almost all of America's busiest airports earlier this year.  

"We may be in a very different place now than we were in May when I last testified about this before this committee," Homeland Security Department Inspector General John Roth said. 

"I believe that Administrator Neffenger brings with him a new attitude about oversight," Roth continued, though he added quickly that "ensuring transportation safety is a massive and complex problem and there is no silver bullet to solve it. 

"It will take a sustained and disciplined effort," Roth said.

GAO officials warned lawmakers that Neffenger will have a long way to go to improve TSA's airport security performance, however. 

"Our body of work over the past several years shows that TSA has consistently fallen short is basic program management in several aspects," the GAO's Acting Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues Jennifer Glover said.

"Three shortcomings stand out," she continued. "First, failing to fully and rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of new technologies and programs. Second, not establishing performance measures that fully reflect program goals. And third, failing to use program data to identify areas for improvement." 

Glover said TSA officials have to do more than address individual recommendations for federal watchdogs to satisfy lawmakers' concerns. 

"TSA is consistently responsive to GAO's recommendations and TSA has addressed, at least to some degree, most of the examples I just mentioned," she said. "But addressing GAO's findings one by one will not solve the underlying problem of an organizational culture that has allowed programs to be stood up without sufficient evidence of their effectiveness."