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THE NATION

Air Security Deadline Not on Track

Security: Mineta warns Congress that budget cuts will probably delay airport screening goals.

July 24, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration all but conceded Tuesday that it will not be able to deliver on a promised federal aviation security system that combines the best in protection and passenger convenience by the end of the year.

Either congressional deadlines for federal security screeners and bomb detection technology will go unmet or the effort to meet them will result in long lines for travelers, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told the House aviation subcommittee. Lawmakers could extend the deadlines, but Mineta did not ask for that.

Mineta said the blame for any failure to meet security deadlines should rest squarely on Congress for delaying and scaling back a request by President Bush for $4.4 billion in emergency funds for the new Transportation Security Administration.

The acrimonious Capitol Hill hearing came less than a week after the head of the agency resigned amid complaints that it is disorganized and heavy-handed. The turmoil could well renew travelers' concerns about their safety, and a growing number of lawmakers and independent experts are calling for mid-course corrections to the federal takeover of aviation security.

"We could truly be looking at a national embarrassment, with check-in waits of up to three hours," said Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition. "We don't want to have to do this two times: once to meet a deadline and a second time because we weren't doing it right the first time."

Responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed legislation requiring that federal employees take over passenger screening by Nov. 19 of this year and that all checked luggage be screened with explosive-detection technology by Dec. 31. But Mineta said lawmakers have now jeopardized the agency's mission.

The congressional funding level "simply will not support the mandates and timetables for aviation security that Congress set last fall for TSA," Mineta said. "Less money with no flexibility means fewer TSA employees, less equipment, longer lines, delay in reducing the hassle factor at airports and/or diminished security."

Congress Cuts Funding

Congress reduced the Bush request from $4.4 billion to $3.85 billion and set various restrictions and conditions on how $925 million of that could be spent. Lawmakers also capped the agency's work force at 45,000, while agency officials estimate 67,000 will be needed to screen passengers and luggage.

Mineta said Bush intends to make a request for more money for fiscal year 2003, which begins Oct. 1. But even that would probably come too late.

"We are confronted with a load that the TSA cannot lift," he said.

Some lawmakers reacted angrily to Mineta's statements, suggesting that he was trying to make a scapegoat of Congress for his own department's failings.

"I am really upset with your performance," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), pounding the dais with his hand. "It's unbelievable to me." Mineta is a former chairman of the aviation panel; he and DeFazio were colleagues in the House.

Only a few days ago, Mineta had assured Congress that security deadlines would be met, said Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "You made a clean and unequivocal statement," said Menendez, who had questioned Mineta on the subject last week at a hearing on the proposed Homeland Security Department.

On a related subject, Mineta testified that a program approved by the House to allow pilots to be trained and armed as special air marshals would cost an estimated $860 million to create and $250 million a year to operate. Mineta said he remains opposed to arming pilots, but he said the idea is getting a second look in view of its overwhelming support in the House.

Trusted Traveler Plan

Another popular idea getting a closer look is a trusted traveler program that would allow frequent fliers who pass a background check to speed through airport security. "There is absolutely no doubt that some of the hassle [will be reduced by] a trusted traveler program of some kind," said James Loy, the retired Coast Guard admiral who has been nominated to become the new head of the security agency. His predecessor, John W. Magaw, had been wary of the proposal, which is strongly backed by airlines and travel groups.

No matter who heads the agency, it faces the bureaucratic equivalent of "Mission: Impossible," suggested Alexis Stefani, an assistant inspector general who also testified at the hearing.

"TSA could not be working any faster or harder than it already is," Stefani said. But the goals for federal screeners and explosive-detection technology are getting no easier to reach.

The agency will have to hire and train 7,600 screeners a month to meet the Nov. 19 deadline for an all-federal force. As of mid-July, it had hired 2,475 of the estimated 33,000 checkpoint screeners needed, and 4,000 more had accepted job offers.

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