Lawmakers call airport screeners ineffective, rude

Posted March 26, 2012, at 9:24 p.m.

WASHINGTON — House members of both parties on Monday teed off against the agency in charge of airport and port anti-terrorist screening, saying it uses ineffective tactics, wastes money on faulty equipment and treats travelers rudely.

“We’re not cattle,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., adding that “barking orders” undermines the good work of the Transportation Security Administration.

TSA officials told a hearing that airport screening is getting better for U.S. travelers, because the agency is moving away from a one-size-fits-all system. Instead, the TSA is expanding programs to identify travelers posing a risk, while allowing those who provide personal information in advance to go through a fast line.

A report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative agency, agreed with lawmakers that several key programs of the TSA have been flawed.

Stephen Lord, director of the GAO’s homeland security program, offered the investigators’ assessment of the TSA at a joint hearing of the committees on Transportation and Infrastructure; and Oversight and Government Reform: The findings:

• TSA deployed its Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program nationwide before determining whether it was valid to use behavior and appearance to reliably identify passengers posing a risk. It was not known whether any of those caught were terrorists. Rather, the program nabbed illegal aliens, drug offenders, those carrying fraudulent documents and people with outstanding warrants.

• While 640 full-body scanners were deployed to detect both liquids and metals, some of the units were not being used regularly, thereby decreasing benefits of machines that cost $250,000 each to buy and install.

• The Transportation Worker Identification Credential program used for 2.1 million workers at ports and on ships has been unable to provide reasonable assurance that only qualified individuals can acquire the card.

Christopher McLaughlin and Stephen Sadler, two TSA assistant administrators, emphasized that help is on the way, but spent most of the hearing fending off lawmakers’ angry comments.

McLaughlin said TSA is working on easing the checkpoint experience for children and senior citizens, including ending a requirement for them that shoes be removed and conducting less intrusive pat downs.

He said the TSA Pre-Check system, the fast-lane screening program, has been expanded to a dozen airports and more than 500,000 passengers and received positive feedback. He said any U.S. citizen in the Customs and Border Protection’s trusted traveler programs will qualify for streamlined screening when flying from 14 international locations.

None of this satisfied the committee members.

Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said TSA wasted millions of taxpayer dollars developing equipment that didn’t work, leaving in its wake “a dire picture of ineffectiveness.”

Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., said TSA treated traveling Americans “like prisoners.”

The chairman of the Transportation Committee, Republican John Mica of Florida, said faulty equipment was hauled away from a storage site “as our investigators were appearing on the scene.”

And Issa read comments from Americans who accepted his Internet invitation to write about their experiences on the committee’s Facebook site.

A Marine in dress blues said he was forced to remove his trousers because his shirt stays spooked a screener. A disabled person complained about constant groping. So did a traveler with a medical device that can’t go through machines generating radiation. And a 61-year-old traveler who had an artificial leg since age 4 gave up traveling, tired of having her breast checked rather than her leg.

Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, said screeners went through all the items of a woman known as one of the richest in his town.

He said it should have been obvious from her expensive possessions that “this woman wants to live.”

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