Steps to address shortcomings in checkpoint screening at the nation’s airports that were identified recently in covert testing by a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) watchdog are currently being implemented, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Monday while introducing former Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Peter Neffenger as the new administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Neffenger was sworn in as the new TSA chief on July 4, succeeding John Pistole, who resigned in December 2014.
Johnson was briefed in late May on the initial classified results of covert testing by his department’s Office of Inspector General (IG), which according to press reports at the time showed that in 95 percent of the attempts mock explosives and banned weapons had been smuggled through airport checkpoints.
Johnson on Monday pointed out that there are multiple layers of security in the aviation system and that the “IG, who has the benefit of an insider’s knowledge, routinely conducts tests of various parts of the system, without passing through all of it like the traveling public must do.” He added that the IG did 70 tests across eight airports, a “fairly discreet” number, “But the results were completely unsatisfactory.”
At the beginning of June, after Johnson received the preliminary results of the IG’s tests, he removed the TSA’s then-acting director Melvyn Carraway and put forth a 10-point to address the issues raised in the covert tests.
The plan called for Federal Security Directors at every airport in the United States to be briefed on the IG’s preliminary test results, which has been done, and for all Transportation Security Officers and supervisors to receive back to basics training, which is underway with the first phase covering all officers on track for completion by the end of September, Johnson said.
He also said that more manual screening measures are in place, including the reintroduction in mid-June of handheld metal detectors at aviation security checkpoints nationwide. The agency has also increased the random use of explosive trace detectors beginning in mid-June.
Three other measures, which appear to get at the heart of the IG’s findings, are also underway. One has the TSA re-testing and re-evaluating the type of screening equipment that was the subject of the covert tests “to ensure that it performs as expected,” Johnson said. “Senior TSA officials and I have personally met with the chief executive officer of the manufacturer of the equipment, and he has pledged the company’s full support and cooperation in this effort.”
DHS has declined to provide specifics about the covert testing and the screening equipment that was involved but earlier in May John Roth, the DHS IG, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that covert testing of body scanners, which are formally called Advanced Imaging Technology, or AIT machines, has raised concerns about “Whether they’re effective (Defense Daily, May 13).
L-3 Communications [LLL] is currently the only supplier of AIT systems deployed by TSA.
The second measure is a longer-term assessment of the current performance standards of screening equipment “and identifying areas where the operability of the equipment can be enhanced,” he said. The agency’s standard operating procedures are also being revised to address “specific vulnerabilities” identified by the covert testing, including the possibility that TSA supervisors will be used more to help resolve situations at screening checkpoints. Testing of new procedures is underway with lessons learned expected to be deployed at all airports later this month, he said.
Johnson also said that the practice of identifying low-risk passengers while they are waiting in line and providing them the benefit of expedited screening, a practice called managed inclusion, is being re-evaluated. He also said that the IG and TSA will continue to do random covert tests of the new actions and that a Tiger Team of DHS and TSA officials will monitor progress of his action plan.
“The team is already underway with its work, has already given me status reports, and will continue to do so every two weeks,” Johnson said.
Johnson said his “charge” to Neffenger is “to be an energetic leader, and to not hesitate to think out-of-the box, re-think old assumptions, encourage your people, your subordinates to raise ideas and points of view, and make hard choices if you have to.”