The Transportation Security Administration is not collecting adequate data to determine whether a key screening center is producing timely and accurate threat assessments, according to a recent government report.
The Government Accountability Office report was released amid warnings of potential al Qaeda activity in the Middle East and Africa that have prompted the closure of dozens of Western embassies and diplomatic outposts.
Part of the TSA's duties is to oversee the vetting and credentialing of people who transport hazardous materials or have access to secure areas at airports and harbors. The process includes ensuring that applicants qualify to possess credentials based on background checks for criminal offenses, immigration status and links to terrorism.
According to a report dated July 19, GAO auditors analyzed data since October 2010 from TSA's Adjudication Center, which uses contractors to help screen airline workers. The center bases its performance on the timeliness in completing assessments, the accuracy of those assessments and the status of its caseloads.
But auditors report that the center faces "challenges in meeting its caseload measure."
In addition, "the Adjudication Center's timeliness and accuracy measures did not capture key data," the GAO report says.
The center's accuracy rate is based on a review of all cases in which an applicant was disqualified but does not include cases in which an applicant was approved, the report says, noting that approvals account for about 90 percent of the Adjudication Center's caseload.
"By developing an accuracy rate that includes data on both incorrectly disqualified and incorrectly approved applicants, TSA can better identify and address performance issues among its workforce," the GAO says.
The TSA has conducted about 15 million background checks since 2003 to "reduce the probability of a successful terrorist or other criminal attack on the nation's transportation systems, which include approximately 360 seaports and 450 TSA-regulated airports," the report says.
In December 2011, the GAO found that understaffing had led to backlogs in security checks and the inability to provide necessary oversight in the credential decision-making process, which TSA blamed on turnover among its contractor workforce and a lack of "sufficiently trained contract adjudicators."
TSA officials said the Adjudication Center had used three contractors since 2005, which led to backlogs as adjudicators were hired and trained.
Data reviewed from October 2010 to January this year showed that the TSA had a backlog of hazardous materials endorsement workers 60 percent of the time, and transportation worker identification credentials 61 percent of the time. There was also a backlog of aviation worker cases about 15 percent of the time from October 2010 through March 2012.
In October 2011, a TSA working group determined that "an excessive risk" exists by allowing contractors to make security threat assessment approvals without sufficient federal oversight, and it recommended that the TSA convert to an all-government workforce.
The TSA planned to convert its workforce by the end of this year, but the plan has been delayed without a revised deadline, the report says.
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said al Qaeda and its affiliates will seek to exploit any vulnerability in the U.S. transportation system.
"We can never guarantee 100 percent security in our transportation systems, whether it's rail or maritime or aviation. They're always going to be exploitable," Mr. Nelson said.
He added that it's common for government agencies to use contractors to conduct background checks, and no amount of vetting can prevent a security breach, as in the case of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
"You do everything you're supposed to do, but you can never eliminate all of the risk," Mr. Nelson said. "There's always going to be some margin of error."
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