Overhaul for airport security in US

Agency's new chief promises changes after glaring security lapses revealed in report

WASHINGTON • The new head of the beleaguered US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has said the agency will overhaul security and screening procedures to address glaring lapses over the past few months.

Mr Peter Neffenger, who took over the agency this month, said the TSA would retrain thousands of screeners to better detect weapons and other illegal items.

It will also scale back a programme that allows people who have not signed up for background checks to use expedited security lines, and more aggressively maintain checks of airports' oversight of security badges.

The agency has been on the defensive after a report in June by the Inspector-General's Office of the Department of Homeland Security found that agents failed 67 of 70 security tests. In one test, they did not spot undercover investigators' passing through checkpoints with potential weapons.

Many former and current TSA employees say Mr Neffenger faces an enormous challenge in taking over an agency caught between the imperatives of safety and speed.

A report in June by the Inspector-General's Office of the Department of Homeland Security found that agents failed 67 of 70 security tests. In one test, they did not spot undercover investigators' passing through checkpoints with potential weapons.

Mr Jason Harrington, who joined the TSA as a screener at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in 2007, said he had been stunned by the agency's seemingly ever-changing priorities.

"One day it was, 'We want to thoroughly check everybody, even if the line is backed up to the ticket counter,'" said Mr Harrington, who wrote an article in Politico last year about his experience with the TSA. "But a short time later, it was, 'We have to get these people through the lines.'"

An internal report that measures performance, sent out last month by the TSA's Midwest regional headquarters, devotes just three pages to security, while the remainder focuses on wait times and customer service, according to Mr Andrew Rhoades, an assistant security director at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Mr Kenneth Kasprisin, who was acting TSA head in 2005, said tensions from the emphasis on reducing wait times and increasing expedited screenings pervaded the TSA.

The result, he said, is that screeners and managers are "all now much more worried about long wait times than they are about properly executing the established screening procedures".

To cut wait times, the TSA started a "managed inclusion" programme to allow passengers who have not signed up for the PreCheck screening programme to pass through checkpoints without taking off their shoes or removing laptops from their bags. Mr Neffenger said the agency would cut back on the programme.

Another audit by the Inspector- General found that the TSA failed to identify 73 people "employed by major airlines, airport vendors and other employers" who may have had links to terrorism. The TSA insisted the people posed no threat.

During a Senate hearing in May, Mr John Roth, the Homeland Security Inspector-General, said the disclosures raised troubling issues.

"Although nearly 14 years have passed since TSA's inception, we remain deeply concerned about its ability to execute its important mission," he said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline 'Overhaul for airport security in US'. Print Edition | Subscribe