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Monday, March 27, 2023

OSC Informs Biden of PreCheck Concerns; TSA Responds

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has responded to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) regarding whistleblower allegations about TSA PreCheck screening.

The whistleblower, who was a Federal Security Director, disclosed that TSA officials lowered security guidelines for passengers with medical devices and for X-ray baggage screening in PreCheck lanes. He also said TSA had used canine screening teams to increase efficiency by moving unvetted passengers into PreCheck lanes.

Some matters raised by the whistleblower have been deemed classified on grounds of national security and are therefore redacted from OSC’s public version of a letter sent to the President that raises the concerns.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigated the allegations filed with OSC involving the screening performed in TSA PreCheck lanes. After a review of the allegations, DHS determined in 2019 that TSA’s actions did not constitute gross mismanagement or a substantial and specific danger to public safety. 

But on July 22, 2022, OSC issued a notification that it found DHS’s determination did not appear reasonable. It added that the majority of OIG’s findings confirm the whistleblower allegations.

OIG recommended that, to the extent TSA bases security decisions on the presumed lower risk posed by PreCheck passengers, TSA must ensure that only passengers properly vetted by TSA or another federal entity are given access to PreCheck lanes. However, in its letter to the President, OSC writes that TSA did not provide the OIG with evidence of oversight or quality assurance measures to ensure that only properly vetted passengers access PreCheck lanes, and points out that OIG found that TSA does not conduct covert internal testing to ensure compliance.

TSA said on July 29, in response to OSC’s concerns, that PreCheck passengers are confirmed at the Travel Document Checker (TDC) podium where technology verifies TSA PreCheck status and highly-trained Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) ensure that only TSA PreCheck passengers are directed to TSA PreCheck screening lanes. 

“TSA PreCheck passengers provide comprehensive biographic and biometric information during enrollment, which enables a very thorough, and recurrent, vetting for both terrorism and disqualifying criminal history,” said TSA. “In addition, beginning 72 hours prior to travel, all TSA PreCheck travelers are also vetted through TSA’s Secure Flight, which enhances security by identifying low and high-risk passengers, as well as individuals on the No Fly List and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Do Not Board list, before they arrive at the airport. TSA’s Secure Flight system only permits airlines to issue boarding passes with TSA PreCheck markings to individuals in a Congressionally-authorized category. Secure Flight randomly excludes a small percentage of TSA PreCheck eligible travelers from receiving expedited screening as a way to test whether TSA PreCheck passenger screening is identifying passengers and carry-on items that pose a threat. Similarly, TSA randomly selects passengers for enhanced screening for the same reason.

“No passenger receives a TSA PreCheck designation on their boarding pass unless they are in one of the categories authorized by Congress to receive access to TSA PreCheck lanes.

“A passenger without a TSA PreCheck marking who tries to access a TSA PreCheck lane will be redirected to a standard screening lane. When the passenger’s boarding pass is scanned, based on the boarding pass barcode or electronic QR code, it will alert the Travel Document Checker that the passenger does not have a TSA PreCheck designation.”

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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