WASHINGTON – The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security remains “deeply concerned” whether the agency charged with maintaining internal security is up to the task.
John Roth told the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee that the Transportation Security Administration, an arm of DHS responsible for ensuring airport safety and screening passengers before boarding, faces “significant challenges” in contracting for goods and services.
“Despite spending billions on aviation security technology, our testing of certain systems has revealed no resulting improvement,” Roth said.
The inspector general said his office has issued hundreds of recommendations with the intent of improving TSA’s efficiency and effectiveness to little avail.
“We have conducted a series of covert penetration tests – essentially testing TSA’s ability to stop us from bringing simulated explosives and weapons through checkpoints, as well as testing whether we could enter secured areas through other means,” Roth said. “Although the results of those tests are classified, we identified vulnerabilities caused by human and technology-based failures.”
Audits of the TSA workforce, Roth said, “repeatedly found that human error — often a simple failure to follow protocol — poses significant vulnerabilities.”
Establishing consistency within the ranks of TSA inspectors is a mammoth task, Roth noted. The agency’s 50,000 transportation security officers “spend long hours performing tedious tasks that require constant vigilance.” Complacency can be a huge detriment to TSA’s ability to carry out its mission.
“TSA cannot afford to miss a single, genuine threat without potentially catastrophic consequences,” Roth said. “Yet a terrorist only needs to get it right once.”
TSA, created in wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was created to protect the nation’s transportation systems and ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce. It is a massive operation, with a budget of more than $7.2 billion this fiscal year.
The agency screens about 1.8 million passengers and about 3 million carry-on bags at 450 airports nationwide every day.
In a report issued May 11, the inspector general’s office found that TSA has failed to provide the nation’s airports policies and procedures regarding the maintenance of its security equipment, a drawback that could carry dire consequences.
The report found that the agency hasn’t, for instance, offered airports any instructions on the proper preventive maintenance of tracking and monitoring equipment. While contractors are expected to provide data, TSA fails to verify that necessary maintenance work has been performed. And the contracts with equipment providers don’t contain penalties that can be assessed for poor performance.
“Therefore, TSA cannot be assured that routine preventive maintenance is performed or that equipment is repaired and ready for operational use,” the report concluded.
The lack of proper oversight, the report said, could endanger passenger safety and “risks shortening equipment life and incurring costs to replace equipment. If the equipment is not fully operational, TSA may have to use other screening measures, which could result in longer wait times and delays in passenger and baggage screening.”
Among its recommendations, the inspector general’s office said TSA should establish a means of verifying that required maintenance is conducted.
“We have looked at how TSA plans for, buys, deploys, and maintains its equipment and have found challenges at every step in the process,” Roth told lawmakers. “These weaknesses have a real and negative impact on transportation security as well.”
Despite issuing more than 115 audit and inspection reports about TSA’s programs and operations since 2004, the inspector general’s office determined that “some problems appear to persist.”
“TSA cannot control all risks to transportation security and unexpected threats will arise that will require TSA to improvise,” Roth said. “But other issues are well within TSA’s control. Sound planning and strategies for efficiently acquiring, using, and maintaining screening equipment that operates at full capacity to detect dangerous items, for example, would go a long way toward improving overall operations.”
Better training and management, he said, could mitigate the effects of human error.
“Taken together, TSA’s focus on its management practices and oversight of its technical assets and its workforce would help enhance security, as well as customer service, for air passengers,” Roth said.
TSA officials declined to send a representative to the committee hearing, a move that drew rebuke from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee chairman. The agency did, however, submit testimony to the panel outlining steps taken to assure airport security.
“TSA is a high-performing counterterrorism organization, applying a multi-layered, intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to securing aviation, mass transit, rail, highway and pipeline,” the statement said. “TSA could not accomplish this essential mission without a workforce trained, equipped and committed to the safety and security of this nation. Every TSA employee remains steadfast in the face of a threat that has not diminished more than a decade following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.”
Over the years, the statement said, the nation’s adversaries have “become more inventive and persistent, while at the same time growing and spreading to other countries and regions.”
“We continue to face a real and persistent threat from adversaries adept in the design, construction and concealment of explosives. As such, TSA is evolving our approach to transportation security and to mitigate risks we all face when traveling from, within and to the United States.”
But lawmakers expressed displeasure over the manner in which the TSA is handling its duties.
“We spend about $7 billion a year on TSA’s activities,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.). “This report is an indictment of the failure of TSA. Not just in one area, but in almost every area of their functions.”