The Transportation Security Agency granted expedited passenger status to a traveler investigators described as part of a domestic terrorist group, and refused to rescind the designation even after a line officer recognized the person, an inspector general’s investigation has revealed.
TSA officials initially approved the traveler through the agency’s Secure Flight Program, which is supposed to screen passengers based on the host of information — name, date of birth and sex — that the airlines now demand whenever a ticket is purchased.
Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth said in a report Thursday that an alert TSA line officer recognized the traveler and alerted his supervisor, but the supervisor insisted the officer not do anything and allow the passenger to use the “PreCheck” lanes that allow approved travelers to skip some of the tougher screening that bedevils most travelers.
The person was “a convicted felon who had been involved in numerous felonious criminal activities and was also a former member of a domestic terrorist group,” the inspector general’s office said — though the details of his situation were redacted in the report.
A whistleblower brought the case to the attention of the inspector general’s office, which investigated and said the incident exposed a serious flaw in the airline security screening agency’s procedures.
“Mitigating and reducing passenger screening vulnerabilities is important to our nation’s aviation security,” said Inspector General John Roth. “Incidents like this highlight the need for TSA to modify their PreCheck procedures.”
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the TSA, said he’s going to write legislation to try to close the security gap exposed by the incident.
“While I understand that expedited screening is an interest of the traveling public, it should not be employed at the expense of security,” he said.
PreCheck status can be earned either through an application, which grants perpetual speedy clearance, or on a one-time basis. In this instance, the felon and former member of a domestic terrorist group was approved for the one-time clearance.
TSA officials disagreed with the inspector general’s conclusion that the person was dangerous. In an official response to Mr. Roth’s report, Administrator John S. Pistole said his agency “relies heavily” on the terrorist databases maintained by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, who had not concluded the traveler was a risk to flights.
The TSA also insisted it has “unpredictable” screening procedures that allow it to smoke out dangers, even for those granted PreCheck access.
Mr. Roth rejected the TSA’s assurances, saying not all passengers who don’t appear on watch lists are low-risk. Indeed, the felon would have been ineligible to be granted permanent PreCheck clearance under the TSA’s own guidelines, so it was questionable to approve him for one-time access, the audit concluded.
The TSA agreed with the audit’s recommendation to clarify whether officers have the power to prevent persons they deem security risks from using expedited screening.