Two top Democrats in the House introduced legislation Wednesday to establish standards for covert investigations of airport checkpoints established by the Transportation Security Administration.
The proposed legislation follows a hearing Tuesday by the Oversight Committee, at which TSA Administrator David P. Pekoske told lawmakers that several checkpoint issues raised in reports by the federal inspector general and the Government Accountability Office had been resolved and that his agency is actively addressing the rest.
But committee Chairman Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, decided that additional congressional oversight was needed to set procedures for federal investigators who go undercover to test checkpoint security for bombs and weapons.
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The bill would solidify into law recommendations of the GAO, establishing standards for TSA’s covert testing, and require TSA to track and report its progress in resolving security vulnerabilities identified through these covert tests. The legislation would require TSA to:
- Implement an internal, risk-informed covert testing process that can yield statistically valid results and implement at least three such tests every year;
- Establish a process to determine root causes of vulnerabilities identified through covert tests;
- Track the progress of agency efforts to mitigate vulnerabilities; and
- Report the status of vulnerabilities to the Congress as part of TSA’s annual budget submission.
“This legislation will ensure that the security testing of our airport checkpoints is done correctly with proper follow-through,” Thompson said in a statement. “For too long, TSA has not been properly introducing fixes for clear security gaps that could potentially save lives. I urge the House to quickly pass this legislation so we can be sure TSA is operating as effectively — and safely — as possible.”
The bill requires the GAO to come back in three years assess TSA’s effectiveness in conducting covert tests and resolving security vulnerabilities.
The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general has issued several reports critical of the TSA, and Congress has asked the GAO to study what was amiss. In 2015, then-acting TSA Administrator Melvin J. Carraway was reassigned after the DHS revealed that undercover agents were able to slip by TSA checkpoints 67 times carrying bogus bombs or illegal weapons.
Two years later, the DHS inspector general’s office issued a classified report that “identified vulnerabilities with TSA’s screener performance, screening equipment, and associated procedures.” Last year, another classified report by the inspector general questioned whether the TSA’s Federal Air Marshal Service was effective. And in February, an inspector general report “identified vulnerabilities with various airport access control points and associated access control procedures.”
Pekoske, who arrived as TSA chief in 2017, said Tuesday: “Overall, the TSA has taken significant efforts to address the GAO and IG recommendations as quickly as possible. We have already submitted to the GAO requests for closure of four of the nine recommendations” based on covert testing.
“As for the remainder, I’m committed to getting them closed as quickly as possible,” he said.