Airport scanners not tested, federal watchdog says

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Once the Transportation Security Administration installs security screening equipment at an airport, no further testing is done to make sure it continues to operate efficiently, according to a federal watchdog agency.

The TSA “does not ensure that screening technologies continue to meet detection requirements after deployment to the airport,” the report from the General Accountability Office said. GAO is a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

The 2019 GAO report also said:

– TSA hasn’t updated its guidance on developing new security standards since 2015.

– It’s unclear what TSA considers new or continuing risks due to insufficient documentation.

– TSA doesn’t always implement new detection standards it comes up with, often because of a lack of technology.

TSA attributed those vulnerabilities to record-breaking numbers of travelers. It said more than 43.8 million passengers and crew members were screened during the 2019 winter holiday season.

To help handle the large volume of passengers, the agency has taken steps to reduce wait times at screening points. Most notable is the TSA’s PreCheck program.

“For a relatively small fee, and after you pass both a background check and an in-person interview, you can be cleared for an expedited security line that nearly always takes five minutes or less,” said U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-New York.

“You don’t have to remove such items as belts, shoes or laptops.
However, the TSA has in some cases been permitting people who haven’t signed up for PreCheck to use those shorter lines anyway, to move passengers through faster,” he said.

Katko sponsored a bill in Congress to prohibit the TSA from putting passengers who aren’t in the program in the PreCheck lines. It passed the House in 2018 but stalled in the Senate.

TSA uses covert testing to try spotting security vulnerabilities. Those tests are performed without the knowledge of the TSA staff.

“Covert testing is critical to TSA’s operation,” said Mark Howell, the agency’s acting field manager representing Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, among other states.

“We use testing to evaluate and understand the effectiveness of the security we provide. The agency uses testing results to inform improvements that will strengthen the system against persistent evolving threats,” he said.

Covert testing found some damaging results.

In 2017, for example, TSA agents failed to find mock weapons and explosives 70% of the time, according to the Department of Homeland Security. However, that was an improvement over 2015 when there was a 95% failure rate.

“Aviation security involves a number of measures, both seen and unseen, including covert testing, and we are constantly testing, measuring and enhancing our capabilities and techniques as the threat evolves,” Howell said.

Testing failures aren’t the only things to be worried about, according to Douglas Kidd, the executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers.

“In 2015, there were more than just a couple of issues with the TSA, not just with the missing 95% of the stuff, which is not all that surprising,” Kidd said. “That is a characteristic of the industry.

“They had their own internal problem with agents stealing, smuggling and so forth, which is something continuing to this day,” he said. 

He said agency management is more concerned with protecting the TSA image than “disciplining their troops.

“The question that always comes up with regulations and the TSA is: Who watches the watchmen? The fact of the matter is, nobody does. They’ve turned their blind eye to it,” Kidd said. The association based in Vienna, Virginia, says it tries to protect passengers from “abusive TSA policies and personnel.”

“I addressed some of these issues in a report submitted to the Aviation Security Advisory Committee, basically criticising their approach to things,” Kidd said. “Again, it’s hard to get anywhere with this. I’m not the only person who’s doing this.” Trying to sue the TSA is an exercise in futility, according to Kidd.

“As federal employees — remember when Trump said he was “immune” to the law? That’s not just the president,” Kidd said. “All federal employees are immune. Every single one of them, except for law enforcement. The issue is not knowing if TSA agents are law enforcement or not.”

The dispute lies in the circuit courts, where rulings vary over whether TSA agents are considered law enforcement officers.”

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