The Transportation Security administration is on the frontline of preventing repeats of 9/11, but reports are piling up that portray an agency that simply may not be up to the task.
It’s been a rough year for the Department of Homeland Security agency. President Obama’s nominee to head the agency, Erroll Southers, had to withdraw his nomination in the face of widespread Republican opposition, and it still does not have permanent leadership. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding was eventually nominated in March to lead the agency.
In December, TSA officials failed to take action for one full day after being tipped off that redacted portions of documents containing sensitive security information had been inadvertently posted on the Internet, said the DHS inspector general. Warnings came from three different DHS agencies, but the information remained online for another 30 hours, the IG said.
The Partnership for Public Service in its annual best places to work in the federal government survey ranked it near the bottom. It placed 213 out of 216 overall and only 40 percent of employees there believe the agency has “effective leadership.”
The Transportation Security Administration “has not assessed whether there are tactics that terrorists could use, such as the placement of explosives or weapons on specific places on their bodies, to increase the likelihood that the screening equipment would fail to detect” them, said the Government Accountability Office in a report released in October.
Two months prior to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempting to blow up a Detroit-bound flight using explosives stuffed in his underwear, GAO warned the agency that it had “not assessed whether there are tactics that terrorists could use, such as the placement of explosives or weapons on specific places on their bodies, to increase the likelihood that the screening equipment would fail to detect” them.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has requested additional funds in the 2011 budget to purchase and deploy advanced imaging technology, also known as full-body imagers, despite GAO warnings that the technology’s vulnerabilities are unknown.
In testimony to Congress following the attempted attack, GAO investigators said TSA “does not know whether its explosives detection technologies, such as the AITs, are susceptible to terrorist tactics.”
Further, “the agency has not assessed vulnerabilities — that is, weaknesses in the system that terrorists could exploit in order to carry out an attack — related to passenger screening technologies, such as AITs, that are currently deployed.”
TSA, despite the GAO warnings, has a budget request of $214.7 million for advanced imaging technology; $218.9 million to hire more staff to run the new machines and $6 million to provide officers manning them new radios. When asked if rumored cuts in the DHS budget were reversed because of the Christmas day plot, Acting Chief Financial Officer Peggy Sherry declined to answer directly.
“As part of the budget process we discuss different scenarios and options, those are discussions that are internal to the administration, and what you see in the budget released today is the end product of all those budget deliberations,” Sherry told reporters.
Tara Jeanne O’Toole, DHS science and technology directorate undersecretary, described the AIT machines as “imperfect but better than nothing,” during a House Homeland Security committee hearing in March.
GAO’s October report painted a portrait of an agency that routinely misses deadlines for mandated reports, has not conducted a risk assessment of the vulnerabilities it faces, and deploys technologies such as the explosives trace-detection, or puffer machines, that broke down so frequently that they are being removed from airports. The agency knew of the machines’ problems prior to installing them in 2006, but deployed them anyway, GAO said. In addition, the agency does not have a clear picture of life-cycle costs for the new technologies it employs.
“TSA is in the process of developing a risk assessment for the airport checkpoints, but the agency has not yet completed this effort or clarified the extent to which this effort addresses any specific vulnerabilities in checkpoint technology,” the January testimony said.
TSA in its written response to the report agreed with all of GAO’s conclusions and recommendations. Operational tests of the AIT scanners have been completed, it said.