The Transportation Security Administration "cooked the books" to understate the costs of using federal workers rather than private contractors to screen airport passengers, a key TSA critic in Congress charged Wednesday.
Federal auditors found the agency erred in its cost comparisons, and a skeptical lawmaker said TSA did so to stop the use of private contractors to do screening — an option Congress wrote into the 2001 law that created the agency.
Sixteen airports throughout the country use private screeners under the Security Partnership Program (SPP), but TSA has barred other airports from joining the program.
In a letter to Congress released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said TSA's new estimates show that private screeners are just 3 percent more expensive than federal workers - not 17 percent, as the agency previously had stated.
Auditors said that earlier TSA estimates had not accounted for the costs of workers compensation, liability insurance, retirement benefits and administrative overhead involved in using federal employees.
"TSA cooked the books to try to eliminate the federal-private screening program," said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "GAO found that TSA ignored critical data relating to costs."
Mr. Mica said the revised 3 percent cost difference is likely still too high because it does not take into account "the full cost of TSA's bloated and unnecessary bureaucratic overhead."
The GAO found that TSA's methods for comparing the cost and performance of private and federal screeners had improved since the auditors' last report in January 2009, but it is still lacking in important respects.
The flaws "reduced the reliability" of the agency's cost estimates "by increasing the costs for private-contractor screeners relative to federal screeners," the auditors wrote.
Mr. Mica said he thinks that if all the costs are tallied fairly, private screeners would prove at least as effective and cheaper than their federal counterparts.
"I am confident that the private sector can not only perform better, but do so at a lower cost to the taxpayers," he said.
As chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, Mr. Mica was one of the authors of the 2001 Aviation Transportation Security Act, which allowed airports to opt out of using federal screeners and hire private firms to screen passengers under TSA supervision.
Five airports recently have applied to join the SPP but have been denied by TSA officials, Mr. Mica said.
In January, TSA Administrator John Pistole announced those applications were being refused and that no other airports would be allowed to participate in SPP unless they could demonstrate a "clear and substantial advantage" in doing so.
Mr. Mica said his staff will continue to investigate the "distortion and misstatement of facts used in the denial of each of these five airports' participation in the federal-private screening program."
He said he also is looking into the "the metrics, if any, the TSA used to determine if a 'clear or substantial advantage' existed and what the implications are for the future."
"It is my intent to make certain that TSA cannot arbitrarily deny any future application from an airport to participate in the private screening program," he said.
Other lawmakers already have acted to stop what they say is the agency's bureaucratic end-run around the intent of Congress to allow airports to opt out of using federal screeners.
For example, language inserted by Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, into legislation that would overhaul the Federal Aviation Administration aims to force the TSA to allow airports to join the SPP.
Within 30 days of the bill becoming law, the provision states that the TSA administrator "shall reconsider and approve" any application to join the SPP submitted earlier this year. If the administrator does not grant the applications, he must report the reasons to Congress.
A TSA spokesman said the decision to stop more airports from joining the SPP is in line with Mr. Pistole's vision of TSA "as a federal counterterrorism network."
TSA's "ability to push out intelligence information to our frontline work force and quickly change procedures based on threat and intelligence is paramount to effective security," spokesman J. Kawika Riley told The Times.
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