Airport security remains lax despite billions of dollars and thousands of federal employees added since the Sept. 11 attacks, lawmakers were told Thursday.
A pair of government investigations submitted to the House aviation subcommittee found dangerous objects still get past security checkpoints. And they said neither government nor privately employed screeners performed their jobs well.
The findings are "pretty scary," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the panel's chairman. He plans to hold an emergency meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other key agency officials in the next 10 days to discuss ways to tighten airport security.
"We really ought to be doing a better job for all the money we're spending," said Mica, who threatened to subpoena Ridge and the others if they fail to respond to his request for a meeting.
Congress created the Transportation Security Administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and ordered the agency to replace the privately employed screeners with a better-paid, better-trained federal work force. More than 50,000 screeners were hired.
Congress also ordered five commercial airports to use privately employed screeners who are hired, trained, paid and tested to TSA standards to serve as a comparison to the federal employees. Those airports are in San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; Jackson, Wyo.; and Kansas City, Mo.
Homeland Security Department Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin told lawmakers that the TSA screeners and privately contracted airport workers "performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly."
The conclusions were based on Ervin's own inspectors, who tried to sneak dangerous objects past screeners at airport checkpoints. Such security gaps also were found by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Its conclusions were based on the TSA's covert testing.
The specific results of the inspector general's report were classified, but the committee's ranking Democrat said it revealed that passenger screening is no better than it was 17 years ago. Then, screeners didn't detect 20 percent of the dangerous objects that undercover agents carried through checkpoints, according to the GAO report.
"The inadequacies and loopholes in the system are phenomenal," Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio said.
Mica and DeFazio blamed outdated screening equipment. They said the TSA needs to buy modern machines, which are already in use on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
BearingPoint, a private firm that also conducted a study, did not rate the screeners other than to say there was little difference in their performances.
The inspector general's report, as well as the GAO study, portrayed the TSA as an unresponsive inflexible bureaucracy. For example, it does not allow its own airport security directors or private contractors to fill vacancies as soon as they arise, causing staff shortages. Instead, the TSA sets up temporary assessment centers to process applicants.
Congress gave airports the option of returning to private screeners next Nov. 19, three years after President Bush signed the bill into law. More than 100 of the 429 commercial airports have said they are considering this.
Ervin said the TSA did not initially give the private contractors at the five airports enough freedom to "effectively and immediately address problems with high attrition levels, understaffing, excessive overtime, and employee morale issues."
Lawmakers, the inspector general and the GAO noted that the TSA has begun to give contractors more freedom to test innovations and ways to cut costs. They urged the agency to allow even more flexibility so they could find ways to improve screening.
On the Net:
Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov
Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov