David M. Stone, head of the Transportation Security Administration, announced yesterday that he will leave his post in June, sparking concern among aviation officials and lawmakers about the future of an agency now bracing for its fourth leadership change in three years.
A TSA spokesman said in a written statement that Stone told Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff "of his intention to step down from TSA and has agreed to the Department's request to remain until June to assist with the transition of a successor."
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse praised Stone for "his vital role in TSA's success in strengthening aviation security." Roehrkasse declined to comment on why Stone was leaving or who might fill the top spot.
Lawmakers and aviation officials said Stone performed his job well under difficult circumstances but that the agency has been hampered by budget constraints and changes in leadership. Before his appointment to head the TSA, Stone served as a TSA security director at Los Angeles International Airport, a role that many observers said encouraged his outside-the-Beltway perspective.
"He was very forthcoming in terms of trying to change the bureaucratic culture [of the TSA], of decentralizing decisions and allowing airports to make their own decisions. He always assured us he was plugging away at it," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.
But DeFazio said he feared Stone's departure signals a push by Republicans to dismantle the TSA and replace federal airport screeners with ones employed by private companies who worked the checkpoints before the terrorist attacks in 2001. "To go back to the good ol' days where private companies could go hire screeners for minimum wage is not my vision for how we provide better airport security," DeFazio said.
Airport officials said they are concerned about the number of high-level turnovers at the top of the agency. Stone's deputy, Carol DiBattiste, has already announced plans to leave the TSA and take a job with ChoicePoint, a firm that collects data on individuals and has been a TSA contractor. Airport officials are particularly concerned about a change in TSA leadership at a time when the summer travel season is expected to bring out a record number of travelers and the TSA is limited to 45,000 screeners because of a cap put in place by Congress.
"With a lot of leadership transition in the past couple of months, we're going to keep a close eye on Chertoff's departmental review and we're looking forward to whatever organization they put in place to address these concerns," said Carter Morris, vice president of security policy at the American Association of Airport Executives.
Ian Redhead, who also represents airport interests at Airports Council International-North America, said the leadership changes hurt the agency's ability to be effective. "It isn't good for the industry -- the constant change," Redhead said. "It's not only change at the top but it's a ripple effect where [a new leader] comes in and brings his own people. You're going to have a learning curve."