House members criticize TSA


An employee of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inspects a traveler's documents on the eve of Thanksgiving, at Reagan National Airport (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

Congress was asked Wednesday to imagine airport security checkpoints manned by people in pastel polo shirts rather than the police-like uniforms of the Transportation Security Administration.

Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee said they would rather imagine the much-maligned security force disappearing altogether.

“We need to be closing down the TSA as we know it,” said Rep. John L. Mica (R.-Fla.), chairman of the transportation committee.

The suggestion to dress security personnel like pool boys to make them “less threatening” came from Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a Springfield-based organization he helped form.

“To much of the flying public, the TSA is a boogeyman,” Leocha testified. “TSA has become the butt of countless jokes. TSA is set up like the Maginot Line, the poster child for generals fighting the last war.”

The agency faced a backlash two years ago when its new X-ray scanners were judged by some to reveal passengers’ intimate parts; the thorough frisking of people who declined to go through the scanners also infuriated some. Cellphone videos — some genuine, some phony — that portray apparent TSA transgressions went viral on the Internet and became fodder for TV talk shows.

Wednesday’s hearing was the third this year on the TSA held by House transportation officials, and the federal aviation security agency has come under fire at each of them, particularly from Republican committee leaders, who see the TSA as an expensive and ineffective bureaucracy.

The second common feature of the three hearings has been the absence of TSA Administrator John Pistole or anyone from his agency.

“It’s very sad that the administrator of TSA is stonewalling this committee,” Mica said, pointing to a placard bearing Pistole’s name that was placed before an empty seat at the witness table. “They don’t want to respond to us. The sad thing about it is that the system doesn’t make us any safer.”

In a public statement, Pistole responded that the committee “has no jurisdiction over the Transportation Security Administration” and that “no representative from TSA will be present.”

He said the agency will continue to work with the congressional committees tasked with homeland security oversight.

“In the 112th Congress alone, TSA witnesses have testified at 38 hearings and provided 425 briefings for members of Congress,” Pistole said.

Mica and other House Republicans have been outspoken in recommending that the TSA take on a dramatically different role. They want it to act as the supervisory agency in protecting transportation systems from terrorists but leave tasks such as airport security checks to private firms.

The 45,000 screeners at airport security checkpoints are the face of the TSA for most Americans, and Pistole has sought to address the concerns and complaints about the agency, which was created 11 years ago after the Sept. 11 attacks with a mandate to protect the flying public from airborne terrorists.

Since taking over the agency, Pistole, a former FBI official, has pushed the TSA to rely more on intelligence data to single out potential terrorists and relax the approach that Leocha likened to the Maginot Line.

The TSA has introduced a program known as “Pre Check” that allows passengers who have provided information to a federal clearinghouse to bypass much of the normal screening process.

Stephen M. Lord, homeland security director at the Government Accountability Office, told the committee that it is impossible to tally the volume of complaints the TSA receives because local divisions of the agency report them differently. But he said that from October 2009 to June 2012, the TSA’s contact center received 39,000 complaints about the screening process.

“They need to make the process more effective [and] more selective,” he said.

Lord said the agency had agreed to all of the GAO’s recommendations, contained in a report this month, for streamlining and coordinating passenger complaints.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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