This week’s report that the TSA failed to spot 95 percent of contraband weapons snuck through in tests of airport screeners comes just a few months after the agency bragged about the good job it was doing in sniffing out guns and other weapons.
More than 2,000 guns — an average of six a day — were discovered by Transportation Security Administration screeners in 2014, the agency said in a post declaring the seizures “a great year.” But the failure rate in the new classified report suggests that the rate of those that got through could be much higher.
Now lawmakers on Capitol Hill are wondering why the agency was touting its success rate even as investigators were spotting holes.
“This news raises serious questions about TSA’s competence and could undermine their previous claims. This January, TSA bragged about stopping an average of six firearms a day last year but now Americans aren’t sure if that’s a measure of success or a colossal failure,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican and member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Mr. Sasse applauded the inspector general for spotting the problems, but said the TSA will have to explain the problems in light of its previous success claims.
“The American people deserve a full explanation for how TSA could miss weapons and explosives 95 percent of the time,” he said.
ABC News reported Monday that investigators from the Homeland Security inspector general’s office had managed to sneak contraband material by TSA screeners in 67 of 70 tests they ran.
The investigators are professionals, and likely knew the best ways to exploit weaknesses, so it’s not what their 95 percent failure rate translates into for actual weapons that got through.
“I am really surprised it took them, what, 14 years to find out their system doesn’t work. I was on record from Day One that their system doesn’t work and can’t work,” said airline security expert Rafi Sela, president of AR Challenges, who said the TSA does a poor job of trying to weed out would-be problem travelers and doesn’t train and test its screeners.
“At the end of the day it is dependent on a pair of eyes of a human being looking at a screen — that’s the biggest flaw of all,” he said. “If you think that the screener can spot anything then you are mistaken, and it’s been proved. They can’t spot anything. I have told this to the TSA several times over the years and they don’t want to listen.”
Mr. Sela said the 95 percent failure rate isn’t new.
“From Day One the system never got below 95 percent failure. But nobody acknowledged it and nobody published it,” he said.
Security experts say the TSA doesn’t have to be perfect in spotting guns or other weapons, just good enough to be a deterrent to a terrorist. But Bruce Schneier, a technology and security expert who’s been a frequent critic of the TSA, wrote on his blog that the new reported failure rate is worrisome.
“A 95% failure rate is bad, because you can build a plot around sneaking something past the TSA,” he wrote.
The TSA referred questions about the failure rate to the main Homeland Security Department, which oversees the agency. A spokesman there declined to comment for the record, pointing to Secretary Jeh Johnson’s extensive statement released late Monday in which he said he’d “reassigned” the TSA’s acting chief and announced a series of immediate steps to retrain screening officers and retest equipment.
He also again touted the high seizure rates of weapons as evidence of success.
“I continue to have confidence in the TSA workforce,” Mr. Johnson said. “Last fiscal year TSA screened a record number of passengers at airports in the United States, and, at the same time, seized a record number of prohibited items.”
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest tried to blame Senate Republicans for stalling on the nomination of Coast Guard Admiral Peter Neffenger, who was tapped by Mr. Obama in late April to lead the TSA.
“He is somebody who is eminently qualified for this position,” Mr. Earnest said. “And in the several weeks since he has been nominated, he’s been given one congressional hearing. We would like to see Congress act more quickly to confirm him and allow him to get on the job.”
When a reporter pointed out that it took the White House more than six months to choose Adm. Neffenger to fill the job opening, Mr. Earnest replied, “Now that we’ve found that right person, we would ask the Senate to move quickly to get it done.”
The Senate held a confirmation hearing for Adm. Neffenger two weeks ago. Senators are now awaiting his written responses to questions, and will move on his nomination at that time, a GOP aide said.
⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this article.