U.S. airports have suffered more than 25,000 security breaches under the watch of the Transportation Security Administration in the past ten years, a House subcommittee on national security reported today.
At a hearing today of the House subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations, lawmakers reported thousands of breaches and slammed the TSA for what members saw as a litany of security lapses at airports across the country. (TSA employee caught stuffing passengers’ junk in his trunks)
According to numbers provided to the committee by the TSA, more than 14,000 people accessed sensitive areas of airports and around 6,000 passengers and pieces of luggage were able to make it past security checkpoints without proper screening.
Some 1,388 breaches occurred at the perimeter areas of airports, such as at JFK, where a quarter-mile of perimeter fence has been missing for four years.
Airports are responsible for monitoring and maintaining perimeter security, although the TSA is responsible for enforcing guidelines.
In a statement to ABC News, the TSA said the 25,000 breaches “represent a tiny fraction of one percent” of the billions of passengers screened at the nation’s airports since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. “Airports today are safer than ever before,” the statement said.
However, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz called TSA’s operating procedures “security theater.”
“There’s a better, smarter, safer way to do this, and the TSA isn’t prioritizing here,” Chaffetz said. “How do we be more secure but less invasive? We have to find that balance.”
Florida Republican Rep. John Micah was less sparing in his assessment.
“We’ve created an agency that’s run pell-mell away from security and turned into huge unthinking, non-risk-based bureaucracy,” Mica said. “Everywhere I turn I’m appalled at what’s taking place.”
Chaffetz slammed the TSA for not conducting thorough risk assessments at airports. A Government Accountability Office report found only 17 percent of U.S. airports have received joint vulnerability assessments.
“In September 2009, GAO reported that since 2004 TSA has taken actions to strengthen airport perimeter and access controls security by, among other things, deploying a random worker screening program; however, TSA has not conducted a comprehensive risk assessment or developed a national strategy,” the GAO wrote. “Specifically, TSA had not conducted vulnerability assessments for 87 percent of the approximately 450 U.S. airports regulated by TSA at that time.”
The joint vulnerability assessments conducted by TSA in concert with the FBI are the most intensive risk assessments the agency performs.
A separate GAO report issued Tuesday also found TSA was facing serious challenges in upgrading its explosives detecting devices. TSA revised its explosives detecting requirements in 2010, but it had yet to even fully upgrade its fleet of machines to the previous 2005 standards.
“TSA did not begin deployment of systems meeting the previous 2005 requirements until 2009,” the report found. “As of January 2011 some of the EDS in TSA’s fleet detect explosives at the level established in 2005 while the remaining EDS detect explosives at levels established in 1998. Further, TSA does not have a plan to deploy and operate systems to meet the current requirements and has faced challenges in procuring the first 260 systems to meet these requirements.”
The GAO noted that practical issues, such as the difficulty of testing explosive compounds, had delayed the program. TSA assistant administrator John Sammon said the 1998 standards are still “more stringent than anything else in the world.”
Committee members also criticized TSA’s SPOT program, which uses behavioral analysis to detect potential terrorists. TSA has invested $800 million in the program, even though no independent studies have confirmed its effectiveness.
Committee members called for wider use of bomb-detecting dogs rather than body-imaging devices, and improved cooperation between TSA and airports.