The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security says his office is "deeply concerned" about the ability of the Transportation Security Administration to carry out its mission. John Roth told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that despite hundreds of recommendations on security procedures "some problems appear to persist."
The most recent is a failure to identify 73 airport workers potentially linked to terrorism. Roth told the panel the TSA lacked the ability to access all names on a government terrorist watch list. According to Roth, former TSA Administrator John Pistole wrote the FBI last year asking for access to the list, known as TIDE, but the TSA has yet to receive it.
Roth said his office gave the 73 names to the TSA and that the agency is "following up on each." Roth said "to the extent there was a vulnerability, I believe it's been closed, but it certainly gives you pause that this situation was allowed to continue."
In a statement, TSA said it concurs with the OIG's recommendations, and that following a gun-smuggling incident at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport last year, it has "increased the random and unpredictable screening of aviation workers at various airport access points."
Roth also cited other concerns arising from a series of "covert penetration tests" by his agents who tried to smuggle simulated explosives and weapons past screeners at checkpoints. The results of the most recent tests remain classified, but reports leaked to several media organizations indicated the attempts were successful 95 percent of the time. Roth said the tests were conducted by auditors from his office and were not members of a so-called "red team" with special expertise in TSA procedures and how to defeat them.
A whistleblower who appeared before the committee testified there was a culture of "fear and distrust" at TSA. Rebecca Roering, a TSA employee who works at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, told senators that TSA hands out PreCheck status "like Halloween candy."
PreCheck is the TSA program that allows travelers who undergo background checks and pay a fee to go through expedited screening. But the agency routinely allows other travelers into the program. Roth said his office had raised similar concerns with the TSA, but that the agency "declined to take our recommendations."
The hearing was recessed after a report of a suspicious package in the Dirksen Senate Office building caused Capitol Police to clear the building. Nothing hazardous was found.