Chertoff: More Personnel Better for TSA Than Current Generation of Technology

Chertoff: More Personnel Better for TSA Than Current Generation of Technology
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff
The Transportation Security Administration is asking for less money for explosives detections systems in the coming year and more money for staff because the technology is not meeting the current threat scenario, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told House appropriators Thursday.

“A lot of these machines don’t deliver what they promise,” Chertoff said.

During what will likely be his last appearance before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee — a congressional panel DHS has complimented for its oversight activity — the secretary spoke of a change in TSA’s airport security mission.

The agency is focusing on airport staff involved in document checking and behavioral detection, Chertoff said. He said the latter tactic led to the April 1 apprehension of Jamaican national Kevin Brown, who entered Orlando International Airport carrying a bag containing bomb ingredients including pipes, ball bearings, batteries, two containers of an unknown liquid, a laptop and information on making bombs.

“One of those officers saw an individual acting in a suspicious way,” Chertoff said, adding that before Brown’s bag even made it to a checkpoint officers opened it and inspected its contents.

Chertoff’s statements came in response to a line of questioning from ranking Republican Harold Rogers of Kentucky, who said TSA should be looking at more screening technology, not staff.

Rogers referred to a now-defunct cap of 45,000 full-time employees that Congress had set for TSA. While the cap ceased to exist with the fiscal 2008 omnibus spending bill (PL 110-161), Rogers said the sentiment behind it still does: requiring TSA’s bureaucracy to bring in machinery that is more accurate and less expensive than employees. In 2009, TSA has gone over the former cap by about 600 employees.

President Bush’s 2009 budget request for TSA calls for a roughly 24 percent increase in full-time employee compensation and, by Roger’s numbers, a decrease of about 48 percent in explosives detection systems funding. In previous hearings and correspondence, TSA has said it would make up the loss in technology funding with a proposed mandatory passenger fee that would generate about $426 million in its first year. However, Rogers and other lawmakers have said Congress is unlikely to pass the fee.

The technology cut and personnel increase is “a double-edged sword, cutting the wrong way, in my judgment,” Rogers told Chertoff during the Thursday hearing.

Chertoff responded that the technology available for immediate deployment faces new, unexpected challenges. He said the case that resulted in the TSA rule limiting liquids in carry-on baggage — the thwarted U.K. transatlantic flight plot of 2006, during which terrorists allegedly planned to use liquid explosives disguised as beverages — is an example of the problem.

“We are now dealing with a wider variety of explosives, liquid explosives, and that has made the challenge greater,” he said.

He said TSA is now looking at emergency technology, rather than making a “significant investment” in the current generation.

Rogers contended that the market has products that could benefit TSA’s mission.

“I disagree that the machines on the market ... are insufficient,” he said.

The congressman said that too many screeners in small and medium airports are still using swab-style explosives detection machines, and that there are now effective automated solutions.

“And we are testing some of them,” Chertoff said. As of now, he said, TSA is balancing between acquiring some current products and watching new ones develop.

The Big Picture
The exchange was just one of many topics covered in the lengthy hearing, where Chertoff fielded questions from more than half a dozen members.

DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner said the department and the subcommittee had long been discussing budget details, so the hearing concerned mostly big-picture topics.

Although DHS often complains about the 86 committees and subcommittees with oversight authority, Keehner said it appreciates its interactions with both appropriations panels.

“They understand the department,” she said.

Rob Margetta can be reached at [email protected]

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