Insider Threats Pose Risk to Airports; TSA Also ‘Long Overdue for Overhaul’

The majority of nation’s airports do not have full employee screening at secure access points, resulting a serious insider threat vulnerability, and “are unable to demonstrate the security effectiveness of their existing employee screening efforts, which consist largely of randomized screening by Transportation Security Administration [TSA] officers or airport law enforcement personnel,” according to the House Committee on Homeland Security Majority Staff report released Monday, America’s Airports: The Threat From Within.

Disturbingly, the report noted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General revealed in 2015 that “73 aviation workers with links to terrorism were either currently or recently employed at airports across the United States with access to secure and sterile areas,” and that, “Subsequent oversight efforts revealed that while TSA reviewed each individual and determined whether they were a threat to aviation security, the agency had missed terrorist ties due to a lack of access to certain data sets held by other entities within the US Government. Despite longstanding efforts to be granted access to additional intelligence databases, DHS and TSA were met with resistance and delay by other federal agencies.”

“After media and Congressional pressure,” the report disclosed, “TSA was granted additional access by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” but that “some officials within TSA have admitted that more is needed in order to provide sufficiently robust vetting to aviation workers. TSA has dispatched Field Intelligence Officers to educate personnel on the importance of catching prohibited items and conducting proper screening of passengers at the security screening checkpoint; however, the subcommittee has not been made aware of any efforts to bolster agency employee screening operations by informing TSA screeners of the scope and seriousness of the insider threat.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) had already noted in an audit report that TSA officials have long acknowledged the potential threat from airport workers, but deemed the threat a “known and accepted risk.”

The report is the culmination of a 2-year investigation by the subcommittee chaired by John Katko (R-NY).

The report stated that after “extensive, bipartisan investigation into nearly every aspect of airport access controls and employee vetting and screening … Access controls, the capabilities and systems in place to safeguard access to sensitive areas and the means by which employees are screened at airports were shown to be a source of vulnerability to securing the aviation sector.”

Follows hearing on TSA’s future

The report comes on the heels of a recent subcommittee hearing on the future of the TSA during which Katko stated, “While we have been able to advance legislation to address many of the challenges that TSA faces, it is incumbent upon us to provide clearer direction and intent for this often troubled agency in the form of a full scale reauthorization, and find a way to limit the revolving door of leadership. Without continuity at the top, it is impossible for any organization to successfully implement a long term strategic vision. Instead, we have all been left with the many fits and starts of the last few years.”

Katko said, “Although TSA is one of the youngest agencies in the federal government, it has come to operate as an entrenched federal bureaucracy. This means that often times it fails to achieve important efficiencies, and it lacks the flexibility to respond to an ever-changing threat landscape. I believe that with the start of this new administration, we have a unique opportunity to affect positive change at TSA.”

He added that TSA “was founded just weeks after 9/11,” and that “Congress did what it does best — it reacted to a crisis and threw money at a problem.” Now, he said, “here we are nearly sixteen years later [and] the American taxpayer has spent billions of dollars and it is clear that TSA is long overdue for an overhaul. The agency has long been plagued with uncertainty and a lack of leadership. Since 2014, TSA has had six different administrators leading the agency.”

[Editor’s note: There have only been seven TSA administrators since the agency was created, including current Acting Administrator Dr. Huban Gowadia]

Under former TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, he said, “TSA began to move in the right direction” and a “new training and education program was put into place for all front-line employees” with and emphasis placed on engagement with the private sector and TSA launching an Innovation Task Force to seek out new technologies. But, “While these were important first steps, they did not go far enough, and now many of these potentially transformative initiatives are left to languish or disappear altogether with yet another change in leadership when the President names a new administrator. It would be wise for the new administrator to continue to build upon many of [the] positive changes initiated by … Neffenger.”

Report portends bad news

The House Homeland Security Committee report pointed out that of the approximately 900,000 people who work at the 450 airports in the United States under federal supervision and control, “many are able to bypass traditional screening requirements that travelers visiting the airports must endure. While the overwhelming majority of these airport workers take the inherent responsibility seriously, there are increasing concerns that insider threats to aviation security are on the rise.”

“Recent insider threat examples discussed in [the] report include an attempt to detonate a bomb at an airport, gun and drug smuggling, an expressed willingness to smuggle explosives as well as employees who became involved in terrorist activities overseas. In all of these instances, the employees in question had access to secure areas of the airport,” the report stated.

“These insider threats, and the lack of adequate access controls at airports nationwide, are of particular concern given the rise of terrorist groups bent on penetrating US airport security to commit terrorist acts and ‘lone wolf’ attacks being inspired by terrorist groups like ISIS,” the report said.

The report emphasized that, “Inconsistencies exist across the system related to how airport and air carrier security officials educate their credentialed populations on responsibly using their access and reporting suspicious activities. The relationship between stakeholders and local TSA officials varies widely among airports, increasing concern that security gaps are left open by lapses in effective communication and coordination.”

The subcommittee further found that the “overall understanding of the threats facing our nation’s transportation systems differed greatly among airport officials across the country, leading to the conclusion that many credentialed aviation workers may not understand the potential risk inherent in weak access controls,” and that TSA must “do a better job of promoting threat information sharing.”

Katko said, “At a time when we face increased threats from homegrown radicalization and lone-wolf terrorism, we must ensure that our airport access controls are strong and that we are doing all we can to mitigate the insider threat to aviation security. The recommendations outlined in [the] report, along with the requirements of the Aviation Employee Screening and Security Enhancement Act of 2017” which Katko introduced this week, “will serve as a roadmap for TSA, airports and air carriers to close security vulnerabilities at our nation’s airports. Our nation’s aviation system is interconnected, and we are only as secure as our least secure airport.”

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) said, “America’s aviation sector remains a crown jewel of ISIS and other terrorist groups targeting our homeland. As they continue to plot against us, we must be ready to confront them at every turn. I commend Rep. John Katko’s leadership on this important national security issue and specifically the subcommittee’s hard work assessing the vulnerabilities facing our aviation sector from within.”

Key findings of the report include inconsistencies which “exist across the aviation system related to how airport and air carrier security officials educate their credentialed populations on responsibly using their access and reporting suspicious activities,” and that, “Conflict between industry and government stakeholders often impedes needed improvements to aviation security.”

“After nearly two years of oversight efforts, the subcommittee found that a majority of airports do not have full employee screening at secure access points,” and that, “These airports are unable to demonstrate the security effectiveness of their existing employee screening efforts, which consist largely of randomized screening by TSA officers or airport law enforcement personnel,” the report stated.

Back to the Future of TSA

Testifying before a recent subcommittee hearing on the future of TSA, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National President J. David Cox Sr. said Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) need to “be provided adequate resources to do their jobs.”

Speaking on behalf of 40,000 TSOs, Cox told the subcommittee, which has sole jurisdiction over all TSA security matters, “emphasized the critical role TSA Officers play in national security, and called attention to the daily challenges and threats they face,” according to a AFGE statement. “Cox underscored the levelof safety and security offered by TSA by citing the record number of weapon seizures at security checkpoints in 2016. He also said TSOs deserved credit for stopping a potential crisis last summer when the understaffed agency faced a historic number of travelers at airports across the country.”

“The TSO workforce is a well-known quantity,” he stated, noting, “TSA report[ed] that in 2016 3,391 firearms were seized at checkpoints at 238 airports. The highest number of guns were found by federal TSOs at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International, Dallas/Fort Worth International and George Bush Intercontinental Airport.”

Homeland Security Today has repeatedly reported that year after year, the number of firearms found in carry-on luggage by TSA continues to escalate. 2015 was a record setting year for firearms confiscations, with TSA intercepting 2,653 firearms—seven a day— in carry-on bags at airport security checkpoints across the United States.

That represents a nearly 20 percent increase over the 2,212 firearms discovered in 2014 in carry-on bags at checkpoints across the country, averaging more than six firearms per day. Of those, 1,835 (83 percent) were loaded. Firearms were intercepted at a total of 224 airports; 19 more airports than during 2013.

The number of hand guns found in 2014 represented a 22 percent increase over the 1,813 firearms discovered by TSA in carry-on bags in 2013.

Of the 1,813 firearms TSA screeners found in carry-on bags in 2013, 1,477 (81 percent) were loaded. Firearms were intercepted at a total of 205 airports with Atlanta on top of the list for the most firearms intercepted (111).

Firearms confiscated by TSA screeners at 199 airports in carry-on bags in 2013 was a 16.5 percent increase (257) over the 1,556 firearms — or more than four firearms a day — discovered in 2012. A whopping 78.7 percent (1,215) were loaded and dozens had a round chambered.

The number of handguns confiscated in 2012 was up from the 1,320 handguns discovered by TSA screeners in 2011, which in turn was up from the 1,123 firearms screeners found in 2010.

As in previous years, the majority of handguns found in carry-on bags were loaded and many had a bullet chambered.

“Despite the burden of relentless overtime due to short staffing,” and, “In addition to Presidential inaugurations, TSOs continued to be called upon to provide the effective, speedy screening necessary to maintain free movement of large groups of people at national events,” Cox said, adding, “TSOs have provided screening for Amtrak and large public transportation systems.”

“The contributions of TSOs to the security of our nation are clear,” Cox told the committee. “Those contributions will be enhanced when Congress and the Transportation Security Administration provide the TSO workforce the basic rights and protections necessary to recruit and retain a workforce that is such an integral part of our national security framework.”

Cox said, “No discussion of the future of TSA is complete without the voice of the TSO workforce. TSOs are the most visible of TSA’s components, the most likely to be blamed for any perceived failures on the part of the agency, and the last to receive credit from the public or their employer for a job well done. It is necessary for TSA to recognize the TSO workforce’s contribution to national security by ensuring the fair treatment of TSOs on the job, and by ensuring TSOs have the resources necessary to carry out the agency’s mission and to hold TSA accountable. AFGE believes this is the best path forward to provide better stewardship of taxpayer funds and enhanced security to address ever-changing threats to American aviation.”

Continuing, Cox testified that, “Experts quickly recognized one important security lapse on September 11th. The patchwork of private firms with little oversight employing screeners with inconsistent training and no standard operating procedures, high turnover, low pay and paltry benefits left a gap in airport security the terrorists could exploit. As noted at the time by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), ‘the people who now are employed as screeners can make more money by going down and working at a concession at the same airport.’ A frightened and frustrated public demanded thoroughly vetted, highly-trained, professional workforce of civil servants. Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), P.L. 107-71, with the intention that the new positions of TSO have higher wages and benefits than screeners employed by private firms to create a well-trained, professional workforce with low turnover able to protect the public from those seeking to commit terrorist acts.”

Cox said, “I recite these sad facts to remind everyone what is at stake: Throughout the world terrorists remained fixated on transportation hubs such as airports, bus terminals and railway stations as a focus for mass casualty attacks. The US has a formula that has kept us safe from these types of attacks for over 15 years: Better intelligence-gathering methods shared among agencies, deployment of up-to-date technology, and in the case of commercial aviation, a career workforce of well-trained, dedicated TSOs entrusted by the federal government as the first and best line of defense against aviation terrorism at airports in the US and its territories. It continues to be imperative that the duties of airport screening be performed by federal government employees, and that these employees be provided adequate resources to do their jobs. Likewise, Congress must pass legislation that ends the shameful practice of treating the 42,000 members of the TSO workforce as second-class civil servants by granting the TSO workforce the same legal protections as other federal employees.”

Cox added, “In addition to maintaining the TSO workforce, Congress must be accountable for providing the resources necessary to provide the level of screening demanded by the public. Last summer’s checkpoint delays were largely caused by TSA’s failure to maintain the necessary level of staffing. TSA admitted that TSO staffing levels fell from 47,147 full-time employees in 2013 to 42,525 in 2015. TSA allowed TSO vacancies to go unfilled based on faulty staffing projection resulting from expected PreCheck enrollments that ever materialized. Congress must not allow TSA to ‘blow smoke’ about necessary staffing levels. The PreCheck program produces a known population of passengers who still require some TSO screening. Piloted use of automated bin return systems may move passengers through checkpoints faster, but they do not impact the number of TSOs needed to screen. Congress must provide the oversight necessary to hold TSA accountable for adequate staffing to ensure security and reduce wait times.”

He pointed out that Congress diverts a whopping $1.25 billion each year from the security fee added to airline tickets to deficit reduction. He said security fee funds need to be directed to TSA, which was the original intent of Congress.

Cox said, “TSOs signed up for the job because they wanted to serve the public by keeping travel safe. In return they have every right to expect fair treatment from their employer: the federal government. Instead TSA remains heavily invested in treating the 40,000 plus TSOs like second class employees. Not only is this an affront to the entire TSO workforce—it is also an affront to all civil servants. Congress should never have given TSA the option of whether to provide fundamental workplace rights and protections to TSOs. And Congress should never have divided the TSA workforce into a group of management ‘haves’ with statutory rights under title 5 of the US code, and the frontline TSO ‘have nots’ who do not.”

Cox called “on the members of the House Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to not only sponsor, but favorably report out the Rights for Transportation Security Employees Act and the Strengthening American Transportation Security Act.”

Cox concluded his testimony by asking Congress to “send President Trump a bill strengthening aviation security through rights for transportation employees."

Correction: In a quoted statement, the speaker incorrectly identified the number of TSA administrators there have been. There have only been seven TSA administrators since the agency was created, including current Acting Administrator Dr. Huban Gowadia.

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