TSA better at conceiving improvements than implementing them, says GAO

Published April 17th, 2008

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deserves a good grade for its effort to secure the nation’s transportation system, but a rather weak grade for actually implementing needed improvements, according to a GAO expert who testified on Capitol Hill on April 15.

Cathleen Berrick, the Government Accountability Office’s director of homeland security and justice issues, told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security and infrastructure protection that TSA has initiated a raft of pilot programs across several transportation modes to test different security strategies, but has implemented relatively few of those strategies nationwide.

For example, TSA ran a pilot program, which was completed in 2006, to test access control systems at 20 U.S. airports, and a separate pilot program at six airports to test perimeter security concepts, such as vehicle inspection systems. "However, TSA has not developed a plan to guide and support individual airports and the commercial airport system as a whole" with respect to these enhanced technologies," Berrick observed.

Another example: TSA has for years studied the possibility of requiring airport employees to carry a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card, or similar smart card, but has yet to determine a nationwide policy. TSA plans to begin a pilot program to test various employee screening methods at seven different airports, including 100 percent screening of all employees at three of those airports. That pilot program, which was mandated by Congress, will begin next month and TSA is expected to report its findings by September 1.

TSA has taken steps to strengthen passenger screening procedures, including the initiation of a new program to study the actual behavior of suspicious passengers, known as the Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program. TSA has tested SPOT and other methodologies at selected airports, but has not yet rolled them out across the country. In fact, TSA has acknowledged it is working with "subject-matter experts" to determine whether its testing methods were well designed and properly executed, and that the results from these observations are scientifically valid and reliable.

In another area, TSA has concluded that it is very cost effective for airports to place explosive detection systems and explosive trace detection machines in-line, along an airport’s baggage conveyor belt system, rather than on a stand-alone basis. However, TSA is still mulling various "creative financing solutions" that would enable airports throughout the U.S. to be able to afford this expensive equipment, said Berrick.

TSA is hoping to develop procedures that would allow for 100 percent screening of all cargo carried on passenger aircraft by 2010, but is still evaluating a variety of possible inspection equipment. In fact, TSA is working with the DHS science and technology directorate to establish a pilot program to test many of these methodologies.

"However, as of February 2008, TSA had provided a completion date for only one of its five air cargo technology pilot programs," said Berrick. These pilot programs would evaluate explosive detection systems, air cargo security seals, hardened unit-loading devices and pulsed fast neutron analysis technologies.

As always, GAO has concluded that much progress has been made by TSA, but a great deal remains to be accomplished.

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