- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

A senior Republican lawmaker is calling for a “dramatic overhaul” of airport passenger screening after an investigation found what he called “a major and continuing problem” with screeners’ ability to prevent explosives and weapons from being smuggled onto passenger planes.

“It’s still a very poor system,” House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican, said in an interview yesterday. “It needs a dramatic overhaul.”

“The performance level [of screeners] is not acceptable” he added. “A major and continuing problem is the ability of the system to detect weapons and explosives.”

Mr. Mica’s comments followed a classified briefing Wednesday by investigators from the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm. He and other members of the subcommittee were told of efforts by investigators to “test the system,” he said.

He would not comment further, but other congressional sources confirmed that the tests included efforts to smuggle real and simulated weapons and explosives aboard planes.

Mr. Mica said the results of the tests were classified, but they were clearly not encouraging: “[The GAOs] comments raised serious concern among many members.”

He added that the subcommittee formally requested that retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy — who runs the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, meet with GAO officials to discuss the results of their inquiry.

TSA officials declined to comment, citing security. “It wouldn’t make sense to make public how we’re trying to beat the system,” spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said.

The GAO also released a public report yesterday raising a different but closely related set of concerns about the training and performance monitoring of screeners by the TSA.

A GAO official said the inquiry was continuing and that officials had taken the “highly unusual step” of issuing an interim report at Mr. Mica’s request.

The interim report found that although the TSA said it recognizes the importance of continuing job training for screeners and special training for their supervisors, “TSA has not fully developed or deployed recurrent or supervisory training programs.”

It also said the agency had no proper system for evaluating screener performance in detecting hidden weapons or other “threat objects” on a day-to-day basis, although the TSA did conduct its own covert testing by undercover operatives.

“We try to break our system so the terrorists can’t,” said Miss Rhatigan, adding that any time a screener failed, there was “instant feedback” from testers and management.

The frequency, success rate and methodology of the tests are all classified, but she said the tests were “always covert, always unannounced … to test our screeners to the max.”

She said 3 percent of the screener work force of 50,000 had been fired because their performance was not up to par.

Mr. Mica, a long-time critic of the decision to make passenger screeners federal employees, attributed some of the failures to the fact they were part of “a huge government bureaucracy.”

“What we need,” he said, “is federal oversight and standards and auditing of private firms contracted by the airports.”

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