The Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday was caught in a crossfire by three of its executives who said the agency’s managers punish employees when they point out security lapses at the nation’s airports.
“These leaders are some of the biggest bullies in government,” Jay Brainard, a TSA security director in Kansas, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “While the new administrator of TSA has made security a much-needed priority once again, make no mistake about it, we remain an agency in crisis.”
As airports anticipate what may be a record crush of passengers this summer, the three men testified that morale was near rock bottom among TSA security workers.
“Many airports are complaining that TSA is getting worse, not better,” said Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). He said that 103 of the TSA’s 48,000 airport screeners quit each week.
“They really don’t like working there,” Chaffetz said. “That’s a management problem there.”
Chaffetz set the stage for Wednesday’s hearing in a series of letters sent in February and March to TSA Administrator Peter V. Neffenger. They demanded to know all disciplinary actions taken against TSA employees, bonus payments made to TSA staff and an explanation for a policy under which workers can be forced to relocate.
Since his Senate confirmation in June 2015, Neffenger has centralized training of TSA employees in Georgia, restricted executive bonuses, ended forced relocations and taken steps to increase airport security.
Brainard told the committee that Neffenger had “done his best to get his arms around the situation, but he hasn’t resolved it.” He said a group of about 20 senior supervisors whom he blames for the TSA’s mismanagement were “waiting [Neffenger] out.”
“The refusal to address or to hold senior leaders accountable is paralyzing this agency,” Mark Livingston, a program manager in the TSA’s Office of the Chief Risk Officer, testified. “TSA employees are less likely to report operational security or threat- relevant issues out of fear of retaliation from supervisors who fear further retaliation from their chain of command. No one who reports issues is safe at TSA.”
When he raised concerns, Livingston said, his supervisors ignored them and punished him instead.
“They reduced me two pay grades,” he said. “This action was intended to publicly humiliate me. They sought to make an example of me.”
The men have caught attention of their supervisors. Livingston has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the agency. The complaints of Brainard and Andrew Rhoades, an assistant director in the Office of Security Operations, reportedly are under internal review by the TSA.
Rhoades said he was asked to run the names of Somali Americans with whom he met in Minneapolis through a terrorist database, a directive he considered to be racial profiling.
“The Transportation Security Administration takes seriously all allegations of inappropriate behavior by its employees at all levels and does not tolerate illegal, unethical or immoral conduct,” the TSA said in a statement after the hearing. “Due to ongoing litigation and open investigations, we are unable to comment on many of the specific allegations brought up during today’s hearing.”
The hearing came 10 months after an inspector general’s report that said his undercover operatives were able to slip through airport security with weapons and phony bombs more than 95 percent of the time. They were able to carry weapons or bomb-like material through airport-security checkpoints in 67 of 70 attempts last year.
Then-acting TSA administrator Melvin Carraway was forced from the job in May 2015 after reports of the airport-security issues became public.
“I appreciate that the TSA has taken steps to address the inspector general’s concerns,” Chaffetz said.
Rhoades’s trouble with the TSA dates to autumn 2014, when a local TV news station began reporting on security lapses at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Rhoades already was on record with his supervisors for objecting to the way TSA screeners were handling confiscated weapons and a failure to put stickers on some checked bags that had been cleared by the agency. He said he played no role in the leaks.
In the aftermath of the news reports, one of Rhoades’s supervisors set out to determine whether TSA employees provided information to reporters, according to an investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC). Early last year, the OSC said, the same supervisor issued Rhoades a forced transfer to Florida.
The OSC stepped in to investigate whether it was a retaliatory move against a whistleblower, and the TSA later rescinded the transfer.
Although TSA employees agree to accept involuntary reassignments, Chaffetz, in one letter to the TSA in March, raised “concerns about whether the practice was used for inappropriate reasons, including as a means of retaliation against certain employees.”