Last year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) offered expedited screeningto a ‘notorious’ convicted felon, and former member of a domestic terror group, according to a recent report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (DHS OIG).
The report asserts that in June 2014, the felon traveler—who was not named— was improperly cleared for TSA PreCheck screening, “creating a significant aviation security breach.”
A whistleblower reported the incident to the US Office of Special Counsel, which referred the case in October to DHS OIG, which determined that TSA did not grant the traveler TSA PreCheck screening through the TSA PreCheck Application Program or managed inclusion, but through risk assessment rules in the Secure Flight program.
If the traveler had applied for the TSA PreCheck program, TSA’s Security Threat Assessment Operations would have would have issued the traveler a Preliminary Determination of Ineligibility Letter because of the traveler’s convictions for murder and offenses that involve explosives.
TSA denies membership in PreCheck for any applicant who has committed 28 disqualifying criminal offenses. Although the traveler would be permitted to seek redress, it is public knowledge that the traveler is a convicted criminal who served years in prison.
Standard operating procedures allow a Transportation Screening Officer (TSO) to increase the level of screening a passenger receives at the checkpoint based on an articulable belief, which the procedures define as “a belief thatcan be put into word and explained to others and is based on observations that suggest an individual or item may be a threat to transportation security.”
DHS OIG said that, “In this circumstance, the TSO recognized the sufficiently notorious convicted felon based on media coverage, and verified the traveler’s identity documents. Upon scanning the traveler’s boarding pass, the TSO received a TSA PreCheck eligibility notification.”
“However,” DHS OIG continued, “The TSO knew of the traveler’s TSA PreCheck disqualifying criminal convictions.”
The TSO did not direct the traveler to a standard screening lane. While DHS OIG determined that the TSO followed standard operating procedures, the inspector general recommended that TSA modify standard operating procedures to clarify that the TSO and supervisory TSO should direct passengers with TSA PreCheck to standard screening lanes when they believe the passenger may be a threat to transportation security.
TSA agreed with this recommendation and in November 2014 disseminated clarifying guidance to the field workforce regarding articulable belief and using critical thinking skills in the screening process.
“While I understand that expedited screening is an interest of the traveling public, it should not be employed at the expense of security,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
DHS OIG’s report emerged on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit published in December. As Homeland Security Today reported, GAO indicates that in October 2013, expedited screening experienced an explosive growth of about 300 percent due to an increase in the overall number of passengers designated as eligible for expedited screening with TSA’s implementation of the TSA PreCheck Risk Assessments, expansion of the Managed Inclusion program and growth in the number of TSA PreCheck airports.
However, the rapid expansion of expedited airport screening has raised questions over whether TSA sufficiently tests these measures for security effectiveness. GAO determined that TSA needed to test the process further to ensure effectiveness.
"This program, intended to make travel easier, could create unnecessary vulnerabilities and seems to cause confusion among travelers," said House Committee on Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), commenting on the GAO report.
To address the serious vulnerabilities within the TSA’s expedited screening programs, Thompson says he is “preparing legislation to ensure that the approach TSA uses to identify low-risk passengers does not create security gaps.”
“This new report comes just after a December Government Accountability Office report on PreCheck and problems with the managed inclusion program,” said Thompson. “Both these reports illustrate shortcomings with the methods TSA uses to identify low risk passengers and demand a legislative response.”