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Agency Defends Efforts to Screen Its Screeners

House panel grills TSA officials, subcontractors on background checks of airport workers.

June 04, 2003|Justin Gest | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — More than 1,000 airport employees trusted to screen luggage and passengers at several of the nation's busiest airports have not been fingerprinted for criminal background checks by the Transportation Security Administration, TSA Administrator James Loy told a congressional hearing Tuesday.

After revelations that convicted criminals remained on the job at Los Angeles International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, among others, officials from the TSA and its subcontractors appeared before the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security to be lectured, questioned and at times scolded by members of Congress.

By the end of the three-hour hearing, panelists disclosed that an additional 18,000 current employees of the 55,000 hired have not been fully screened by the government's Office of Personnel Management and that more than 1,200 people who have been convicted of serious crimes were recently fired. "These screeners often have access to some of the most sensitive areas of an airport, and are one of the last lines of defense against a potential act of terrorism," subcommittee chairman Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said. "One mistake or one unsavory character and you have one huge, potentially fatal circumstance on your hands. This is an awesome responsibility, and the American public deserves the highest standard of protection. Those who do not deserve this trust do not belong on TSA's payroll, period."

Testimony from Loy and his subcontractors described a complex four-step hiring procedure that was rushed by the sense of urgency after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks revealed gaping security vulnerabilities.

The hearing was called in response to reports last month in The Times and the Washington Post describing mismanagement in screening procedures for TSA employees. While Loy assumed full responsibility for delays and mishaps, lawmakers were stingingly critical of the agency's unresponsiveness to inquiries.

Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minn.) said, "It appears to me that the management of TSA is virtually a misnomer. It does not exist from what I can tell."

"One of the most frustrating experiences you have as a member of Congress is trying to deal with your agency and get answers and provide oversight," said Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.). "One of the things that confounds me is I have been told by my local airport authority that they can't talk to me about how they are spending money because they have been ordered by you, and your staff, not to talk to me."

Loy and the contractors remained relatively self-congratulatory, describing their challenges in establishing an agency responsible for 429 airports and around 600 million passengers a year in a matter of weeks.

"News accounts in recent weeks suggest we have some system here that is in some state of disarray, and that's simply not true," Loy said. "Mystery commentary by shadowed screeners who simply don't even know the status of their own personal background investigation is not evidence of a system in disarray."

After the hearing, Rogers said that he was not satisfied with what he heard.

Members of the subcommittee were as concerned with the incomplete background searches as they were with how long it has taken the TSA to screen their screeners, despite the apparent emphasis on speed.

Rep. Tom Latham (R-Ill.) was visibly upset with the presence of unchecked personnel. "I guess the thing that really concerns me here is that we're talking about security of people traveling in our country," he said. "And there should be nothing more important than people having confidence and knowing that the people that are checking them through an airport ... are responsible people and very much involved."

Latham took issue with the agency's lack of speed. While Loy promised to process the 18,000 remaining applications of current workers in the next two months, Latham asked why those applications -- which had been filled in since February -- were not processed in February and done by March.

"Frankly, looking back, I wish I had had the insight to do exactly that," Loy said. "So I don't have an excuse for you, if you're looking for one."

Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) said, "There seems to be some serious discretion to me as to how well this job is being done. And I think we all do not want to be back here at some time in the future trying to figure out who messed up because something bad happened, because somebody didn't do their job."

The panel and the subcommittee will reunite, however, on Oct. 1, at which point Rogers demanded all processing of applicants be complete. "On Oct. 1, if I hear anything other than, 'It's all over,' we have a problem," Rogers said.

Deadlines were established for each portion of the process, and Rogers ceremonially received vows from the panelists that they would fulfill the stated responsibilities. "If anyone has a problem, raise your hand, or forever after here hold your peace, because we are going to be wedded to these deadlines now, all of us," Rogers preached.

The Kentucky congressman subsequently made Stephen Benowitz of the Office of Personnel Management say, "I do."

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