Who’ll Screen the Screeners?

In a commentary written in January entitled Are Educated Screeners Too Much To Ask?, the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center reported on the intent of Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Norman Mineta to keep the same airport screeners who couldn’t do the job before September 11th on the job permanently.

Since that time, the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) expensive security screening program– which is slated to cost up to $105 million for the recruiting and training of an estimated 67,000 passenger- and checked-baggage screeners — seems to have imploded on itself. At last report, according to testimony given before the house aviation sub-committee on July 23, the TSA had hired, trained, and assigned 2,475 federal screeners. The testimony of the DOT’s Deputy Inspector General, Alexis Stefani, advised that in New York, for example, only 15 percent of the screener job offers had been accepted.

And that is only part of the problem. In general, 25 to 35 percent of those who apply for screener jobs in large cities don’t show up. And 50 to 60 percent of those who do appear fail the aptitude test. These striking statistics, provided by the highly respected deputy to the agency’s Inspector General, Kenneth Meade, raise serious questions about what the more than $100 million of taxpayer money is buying for a nation deeply concerned over the security of flying.

Information secured from other sources indicates that the program for the hiring, training, and deployment of trainers to train the screeners is not going much better. It appears that Lockheed Martin, contracted to hire and train the trainers, has handed off that responsibility to a tangled network of subcontractors, who have raided the nation’s police departments, federal agencies, and police academies to find individuals willing to serve as trainers under employment conditions that should make the Labor Department quake. In some cases, these “trainers” have been recruited by designated sub-contractors four levels down the food chain from the prime sub-contractor, Homeland Security, Inc., whose date of incorporation and experience seems to be yet another “classified” piece of TSA information.

What is known is that the trainers are often selected more to fit a politically-correct profile than for their skill and experience; that at airports around the country, screener trainers who have been hired over the past few months are being sent home because they have no screeners to train; and that many of these trainers continue to wait for paychecks because the prime contractor has left that task to irresponsible and inexperienced sub-contractors. The government’s promised fix for our airport security woes has turned into a national debacle.

In our January commentary, we stated that Secretary Mineta had shown a preference for keeping the nation’s under-performing corps of screeners working in our airports permanently. In order to do so, he has interpreted the provision in the Aviation Security Act calling for a high school diploma or equivalent to include one year prior experience as an airport screener. In light of the screeners’ consistent failure to pass every test given of their screening ability by the FAA and the TSA, the Secretary’s decision appears to have been motivated by something less than providing of the best people for the job. Now, in response to the plea of his old political friend Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco and that city’s local labor leaders, Secretary Mineta has further broadened the safety net for the existing work force by granting a pilot project to San Francisco designed to keep the same workers in place permanently. Aware as he is that this particular group of workers has to overcome the additional requirement contained in the law that screeners be American citizens, it was puzzling why this group, of which 800 of its 1,200 members are not citizens, would be selected for such a program.

Little has been mentioned of section 108 of the law, which requires the establishment of pilot projects and their relationship to the law’s opt-out provisions. These provisions were added as a compromise by Republicans in the House, who wanted the screeners to remain in the employ of private companies under close federal supervision. The provisions call for at least five airports to employ private security companies as part of a pilot program measuring the performance of the new federalized airport security program. The reason for the provision is to compare the two forms of management, private and public, with both operating under identical requirements and rules. After two years, any airport in the program could request that the private operation be made permanent. Under the opt-out provision, any airport not in the program could also request of the TSA that a private company, meeting federal standards, be allowed to replace the federal program with private-sector workers. By carefully selecting the pilot projects, the DOT has seen to it that each of the five pilot-project airports is identical to the federal airports in its workforce, offering few differences by which to measure the efficacy of the federal program.

The first clue as to how the TSA would accomplish the Secretary’s goal of keeping the existing workforce in place came during his questioning at the July 23rd hearing, when Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton asked whether the TSA would be able to provide the federal screeners required under the law by the statutory deadline, “or would we be seeing the same screeners who had been there before 9/11?” At the time, the Secretary danced around the question and failed to provide an answer.

His answer, however, has now been delivered. In a letter to Congressman James Oberstar, the ranking member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the DOT’s counsel Kirk Van Tine cited the DOT’s legal authority as the basis to keep existing private sector screeners in the airports beyond the statutory deadline for replacing them. Mr. Van Tine quoted section 106(1)(6) of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), conferring the power to enter into contracts for screening services with private companies as authority for DOT’s plan to further circumvent the law: “…if such contracts are necessary to carry out the functions of TSA.”

In the closing sentence of his letter to Rep. Oberstar, counsel laid the ground work for what we are likely to see at screening stations at American airports after the November 19th deadline: “…if it becomes impossible to meet the statutory deadline, despite TSA’s best efforts, and it is essential to enter into contracts with private screening companies to allow TSA to carry out its mission, TSA has sufficient statutory authority to do so.” Given the TSA’s failure to hire more than 2,475 federal workers with little more than four and half months before the deadline, can there by any doubt that it intends to keep the current workforce in place?

It has become abundantly clear from the testimony on the hiring process at the hearing, as well as from DOT’s penchant for keeping the same unqualified workers working who have repeatedly failed every performance test at our screening stations, together with the reports of problems with certifying and paying screener trainers, that we are likely to see the same folks screening the public on November 20th that we saw on 9/11. The simple fact is that more people are failing the screener exam than exams to become a doctor, lawyer, or certified public accountant. Clearly, something is wrong with the recruitment, selection, and certification processes.

With contracts totaling more than $3.6 billion granted to Lockheed Martin (a company in which Secretary Mineta owns more than 18,400 stock options), NCS Pearson, and Boeing all involved in airport screening programs, we are entitled to a better level of compliance with the ATSA than we have seen. At that price, the cries for delaying for almost 17 more months, until the end of 2003 meeting-mandated screening deadlines, should either be rejected or granted with the provision that the American people receive a refund for breach of contract from the responsible contractors. It is obvious that the cards are carefully stacked in favor of keeping the same unskilled, poorly trained, and inept screeners in our airports for as long as a disinterested public, an unmotivated media, a distracted Congress, and a pre-occupied White House are willing to let the DOT get away with it.

As this is being written, the phones at New York’s EBS Consultants, the security company that has recruited more than a thousand law enforcement officers from federal, state, and local agencies for the screening jobs requested by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in its request for a pilot project for New York’s Kennedy airport, keep ringing. On the line are retired metropolitan area law enforcement personnel, men and women of all races and ethnicities. The project that offered to employ them was rejected by the DOT’s profiling system that says if you’re a former law enforcement officer with a college degree, who has given dedicated service to the community, who has received the best law enforcement training available anywhere in the world, and you want to work in airport security because it was you, your community, your family, or your friends who learned up close and personal about the price for inadequate airport security, you are not qualified. These former law enforcement officers want to know why a federal government that likes to publicly praise their dedication and sacrifice prefers to pay homage to political expediency by keeping unqualified workers at our screening stations instead of them. They want to know, and so do I.

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