TSA Scandal Blamed on Lack of Inter-Agency Information Sharing

By Allyson Versprille

A recent Transportation Security Administration scandal involving dozens of airport workers who passed security background checks despite being on terrorist watch lists was due to a lack of information sharing, a House hearing revealed June 16.

A recent Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report found that TSA failed to flag 73 individuals on the Terror Identities Datamart Environment terrorist watch list. The database contains the names of more than 1 million individuals suspected of having possible ties to terrorism, according to an August 2014 factsheet from the National Counter Terrorism Center.

TSA Deputy Assistant Administrator Stacey Fitzmaurice testified before the House Homeland Security Committee's transportation security subcommittee that those  identified for ties to terrorist organizations by the inspector general in fact posed no actual threat to security. Following their identification, the TSA consulted with organizations outside the agency and determined that none of the individuals were dangerous.

The inspector general report pointed to a long-standing problem in the federal government and one of the key findings of the 9/11 Commssion: a lack of information sharing between federal agencies.
DHS Inspector General John Roth said TSA "is not cleared to receive all terrorism categories under current inter-agency watchlisting guidance." Individuals on such lists are put under categories, or "codes." TSA is not allowed access to these codes to drill down and find out why they are questionable individuals, Roth said. 

Further, fingerprint records that are gathered by airports and sent to the TSA are not compared against FBI files, Roth said. Such vetting is considered "non-criminal justice purposes" so TSA is not authorized to conduct checks through the FBI.
TSA first identified the need to access the database in May 2014, and is still, “Working towards gaining access to it,” said Fitzmaurice.

“That is totally unacceptable,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the committee said. “The American people deserve better.”

Both Fitzmaurice and Roth noted that the processes of working through inter-agency agency databases and vetting systems are complex. TSA should have access in the “very near future,” said Fitzmaurice.

As for criminal histories, most employees don't volunteer information that may cost them a job, and this leaves “little incentive” for them to offer up an employment disqualifying crime, Roth said. The "non-criminal justice" background check provided by the FBI was the equivalent of one that could be provided by a private company, said Jennifer Grover, director of transportation security and Coast Guard issues at the Government Accountability Office.

TSA will begin to implement a criminal activity notification service currently being used by the FBI called Rap Back, said Fitzmaurice. The service will stay up to date on employment disqualifying actions made by airport employees, she said.

More than 400 commercial airports have the “ultimate authority” to determine whether an applicant employee has disqualifying crimes in their criminal history, and much of the data TSA received from airport operators was incomplete and unable to be processed for an effective background check, said Roth.

Currently, there are 87,000 aviation workers who did not list their social security numbers for their background checks, along with 1,500 records in TSA’s database with incomplete names, said Roth.

“It strikes me as sloppy,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., minority ranking committee member, “and there’s no place for sloppiness when we’re dealing with the security of our nations aviation system.”

Topics: Homeland Security, Air Transportation, Infotech

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