The acting head of the Transportation Security Administration has been removed from his job, one of a number of steps being taken to restore confidence in the agency following news reports that undercover security agents had penetrated airport security on 67 occasions.
Melvin Carraway was reassigned to the Office of State and Local Law Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security headquarters. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Tuesday that the TSA’s acting deputy director, Mark Hatfield, will step in to lead the agency until a new administrator is confirmed.
Johnson is moving swiftly to address concerns raised after a critical inspector general’s report identified significant issues with TSA security procedures. In addition to reassigning Carraway, Johnson said he has directed the TSA’s leadership to revise the agency’s standard operating procedures to address specific vulnerabilities identified in the report.
“The numbers in these reports never look good out of context, but they are a critical element in the continual evolution of our aviation security,” Johnson said in a statement Tuesday. “We take these findings very seriously in our continued effort to test, measure and enhance our capabilities and techniques as threats evolve.”
According to the draft report, federal undercover investigators were able to penetrate security checkpoints at U.S. airports, while carrying illegal weapons or simulated bombs, 95 percent of the time, as ABC News first reported Monday.
TSA agents routinely catch scores of regular passengers each week as they attempt to bring knives, guns or other contraband onboard flights in their carry-on luggage. The TSA also uses high-tech methods and X-ray equipment to screen all checked baggage.
But ABC News reported that those safeguards were regularly penetrated in tests by Homeland Security “Red Teams.”
Johnson said that he had received a classified briefing on the inspector general’s preliminary findings and that while “it is not appropriate or prudent to publicly describe the results,” he thought it necessary to outline immediate steps the department is taking in light of the issues raised in the draft report.
At a White House briefing Tuesday afternoon, press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama continues to believe that Americans should feel confident traveling in airports across the country.
“The president certainly does have high standards for the TSA, and if there are vulnerabilities that have been exposed by this classified report, then the president has high expectations that the TSA is going to take the steps necessary to resolve them,” Earnest said.
In addition to revising its procedures, Johnson said, the TSA will retest and reevaluate the screening equipment it uses in airports across the country, train front-line personnel, and conduct intensive training for all supervisory personnel to address vulnerabilities highlighted by the work of the Red Teams. And Johnson said he has asked the inspector general and the TSA to continue to conduct random, covert testing to ensure that systems are effective at identifying threats.
He pledged to remain personally engaged and will receive progress reports on a biweekly basis.
“I continue to have confidence in the TSA workforce,” Johnson said, noting that during the past fiscal year, TSA officers screened a record number of passengers at airports in the United States and seized a record number of prohibited items.
“TSA and the Inspector General are constantly testing and adapting the systems we have in place as part of our commitment to aviation security.”
Johnson also urged the Senate to move quickly to confirm Obama’s choice of Coast Guard Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger as the next TSA administrator. The agency has been under interim leadership since John S. Pistole stepped down last year.
That point was reaffirmed Tuesday by the White House.
“We have confidence that these changes can start being implemented at the specific direction of the secretary of homeland security and under the leadership of Mr. Hatfield, who will be the acting director,” Earnest said. “But we would have more confidence in all this if we could have a permanent, Senate-confirmed director on the job, and we’re hopeful that the Senate will act quickly to get that done.”
Johnson said Red Team testing of the aviation security network has been part of the TSA’s mission for 13 years.
ABC said officials familiar with the report by the DHS inspector general said the undercover group was successful in slipping through checkpoints on 67 of 70 occasions.
The officials who discussed the findings with the network did not supply a copy of the report, so it was unclear which airports were breached or the time frame in which the tests were conducted.
Johnson reportedly visited TSA headquarters last week to discuss the findings.