In the wake of the recent revelation that 73 individuals with suspected ties to terrorism were hired as airport employees, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) faced a number of accusations that its system for vetting airport workers is flawed.
However, amid this controversy, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Tuesday released a report showing that TSA has taken steps to improve the system.
GAO’s findings were presented by Jennifer Grover, GAO’s director of homeland security and justice, at a recent hearing held by the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on TransportationSecurity. GAO’s statement is based on a report and testimonies between from December 2011 through June 2015, and selected updates in June 2015.
According to Grover’s statement, TSA has faced numerous challenges in recent years in assessing whether airport workers pose a potential security threat. However, TSA is making progress in improving its system for vetting individuals with access to secure areas of the airport.
“It has been nearly 14 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, exposed vulnerabilities in the nation’s civil aviation system, Grover stated.” Since then, “According to TSA, the threat to civil aviation has not diminished—underscoring the need for effective airport worker screening programs.”
Effectively ensuring that airport workers, and anyone who requires access to a restricted area of the airport, are assessed for potential security threats requires collaboration between airport operators, TSA, and the FBI. TSA utilizes FBI databases—which provide criminal history records, terrorist watch lists, and more— to look into the backgrounds of individuals applying to work at an airport.
TSA requires that before airport operators issue credentials to applicants seeking unescorted access to secure areas of an airport, the applicant must be vetted in accordance with TSA requirements. This generally includes a Security Threat Assessment, which checks criminal history records, immigration status and terrorist databases.
If an applicant is found to have a criminal history, TSA is obligated to report that back to airport operators. The operators then decide whether their criminal history will disqualify an applicant. The airport operators are also responsible for revoking a worker’s credentials if necessary.
In the past, however, TSA has struggled to thoroughly vet applicants and effectively conduct Security Threat Assessments for aviation workers. In 2011, GAO discovered that TSA failed to completely review the criminal backgrounds of applicants. TSA asserted this was due to their status as a noncriminal justice agency, which limits the amount of information they can obtain from FBI databases.
Current FBI policy prohibits the TSA from conducting recurrent criminal checks on aviation workers, which is considered a “non-criminal justice purpose.”
“Specifically, we found that TSA’s level of access to criminal history record information in the FBI’s Interstate Identification Index excluded access to many state records such as information regarding sentencing, release dates, and probation or parole violations, among others,” Grover said.
Furthermore, Homeland Security Today previously reported, GAO stated TSA relied on airports and airlines to carry out criminal background checks, and did not sufficiently oversee or verify the process. TSA relied on the credential holders themselves to report disqualifying crimes to the airports where they worked.
Consequently, GAO advised TSA to work with interagency partners, particularly the FBI, to close loopholes in the aviation worker vetting process. In 2014, the FBI expanded the amount of information available to TSA when conducting a Security Threat Assessment.
“TSA officials reported that the FBI has since taken steps to expand the criminal history record information available to TSA when conducting its Security Threat Assessments for airport workers and others,” Grover said.
However, GAO has not yet evaluated the TSA’s use of this new system.
Until recently, TSA performed only one criminal background check, at the time of hiring. In April 2015, acting on the recommendation of the GAO, the agency started working on a program that would recurrently perform criminal background checks on airport workers. In the meantime, at the request of the Secretary of DHS, TSA will perform fingerprint-based criminal background checks every two years for airport workers who have access to secure areas of the airport.
These changes emerge at a time of intense criticism of TSA. Homeland Security Today recently reported on a DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report revealing that DHS has discovered that many employee records were incomplete or contained inaccurate information. For example, 87,000 background files of airport employees failed to list a social security number.
In addition, last month Homeland Security Today reported TSA was not properly maintaining its security equipment. A DHS OIG report found that TSA was not keeping up regular maintenance on screening equipment, necessitating the use of other security detection methods that may be less effective at detecting prohibited items.
Moreover, over the past several months, DHS discovered several thousand Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) badges, which permit employee to enter restrict airport areas, have been lost or stolen.
On December 23, 2014, a Delta baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was arrested for a gun smuggling incident the FBI called a “serious security breach.”
Just weeks later, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspector reportedly bypassed security and flew from Atlanta to New York with a gun in his carry-on baggage.
Then, on January 24th, the FBI arrested another Delta employee at Atlanta airport for boarding a flight to Paris without being screened. In all three incidents, the individuals used their SIDA badges to gain entry to the sterile area of the airport.
Given the importance of airport security, it is imperative that TSA continue to make progress toward improving its assessment of the security threat of aviation workers.
"TSA is not responding in a timely manner to seemingly very important issues," said Rep. John Katko (R-NY), the subcommittee chairman. "We cannot have a bureaucratic morass in charge of guarding our airports."