The Department of Homeland Security is changing its policies to allow the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to have access to a national counterterrorism database so that it can screen airport workers for ties to terrorism, the agency’s inspector general, John Roth, said in congressional testimony earlier this week.
TSA came under scrutiny after Roth reported in June that an investigation of airport security found that 73 aviation workers that had been approved to work in secure areas at airports across the U.S. were actually on terror watch lists.
The reason that the terror-linked employees were not properly screened is that TSA was not granted access to the National Counterterrorism Center’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) system. Specifically, TSA was not privy to some of the codes which are part of TIDES’ “watchlist extract.” (RELATED: TSA Failed To ID 73 Aviation Workers Who Were On Terror Watch Lists)
But outcry following Roth’s report, as well as the introduction and committee approval of the “Airport Security Enhancement and Oversight Act” by the Senate Commerce Committee, put pressure on federal agencies to close the watch list loophole.
“TSA officials recognized that not receiving the full database represents a weakness in its program and informed us that TSA could not guarantee that it could consistently identify all questionable individuals without receiving these categories,” Roth said during testimony in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday.
“Fortunately at the request of DHS, the National Counterterrorism Center, working as part of the interagency process, has changed their policy as a result of this audit, and TSA now or will soon have access to this information.”
South Dakota Sen. [crscore]John Thune[/crscore], who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, welcomed the change while adding that his Committee’s legislation goes a bit further than the new policy change regarding monitoring of other aviation workers with criminal histories and those who are non-citizens.
“Giving TSA real-time access to this terrorist database is an overdue step to guard against the inside threat of terror,” Thune told The Daily Caller.
“But our committee passed legislation goes further by ensuring that those who pass checks for secure area badges are subject to enhanced monitoring for criminal activity and associations. We also tie the expiration dates of security credentials to the expiration date of lawful status for non-citizens.”
Roth did acknowledge during his testimony Wednesday that TSA continues to remain “terribly challenged…when it comes to verifying workers’ criminal histories and immigration status.”
He said that TSA does not vet airport workers’ criminal records and work authorization after they are initially cleared to work but rely on individuals to self-report qualifying crimes.
“As a result, individuals could lose their job if they report these crimes, so they have little incentive to do so,” said Roth, who added that under the law, the 450 commercial airports that are regulated by TSA maintain the ultimate authority to review and determine whether airport workers’ criminal histories and immigration status disqualify them for employment.
“TSA officials informed us that airport officials rarely or almost never document the results of their reviews electronically. Thus, TSA cannot systematically determine whether individuals have been convicted of disqualifying crimes,” Roth said, adding that TSA is forced to conduct annual manual inspections of commercial airport security operations.
“However, due to the large work load involved, particularly at larger airports, this inspection process looked at as few as one percent of all aviation workers applications,” said Roth.