Government Can't Explain Increase in 2002 TSA Contract

Dave Walton, left, leads a team from the Transportation Security Administration to a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in August  2002.
Dave Walton, left, leads a team from the Transportation Security Administration to a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in August 2002. (By Stephen J. Carrera -- Associated Press)
By Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 9, 2005

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the government changed a contract to hire federal airline passengers screeners in a way that cost taxpayers an additional $343 million. More than three years later, officials cannot explain exactly why.

Homeland security officials say they have no memos, e-mails or other paperwork to document the reason for the change, as required by federal contracting regulations. They have also offered accounts of the decision that conflict with internal government documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The modification to the contract involved switching the interview sites for tens of thousands of airline passenger screener jobs from a contractor's own assessment centers to hotels and luxury resorts.

The change added hundreds of millions of dollars to a contract that increased from $104 million to $741 million in nine months. Federal auditors later called into question $303 million of that spending.

Homeland Security Department officials said the change was made in collaboration with the prime contractor, NCS Pearson Inc. They said the deciding factor was Pearson's failure to attract enough screener candidates to its own testing centers while hiring for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Documents and interviews, however, show that the decision was contemplated before the contract was signed and was imposed by government officials well before the BWI project. Pearson officials said they never had a chance to try out their own testing approach.

Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, said in a recent interview that the agency does not have paperwork to back up its account and that he cannot recall the details surrounding the decision.

"Honestly, I have no memory of it," said Jackson, who said he was ultimately responsible for the contract as second-in-command at the Transportation Department in 2002.

On Feb. 25, 2002, the Transportation Security Administration, then part of the Transportation Department, accepted a proposal from Pearson, an education testing company, to use its own network of 925 private assessment centers to interview, test and hire tens of thousands of passenger screeners.

At the time, the federal government also was hiring a fresh force of air marshals to provide protection on commercial flights, using what is known as the federal air marshal model.

That approach called for the use of a centralized hiring location set up at a hotel to fill a couple of thousand jobs.

Documents show that TSA officials wasted little time in discarding Pearson's plan for the private assessment centers in favor of the hotel approach.

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