TSA whistleblower says agency operates on culture of ‘fear and distrust’ & lax security

Reuters / Mario Anzuoni
A testimony by TSA whistleblowers before a Senate panel says that the agency is suffering from low morale and a culture of “fear and distrust.” It also mentioned that accelerated screening clearances are handed out like “Halloween candy.”

The testimony on Tuesday morning came a day after a leaked report said the agency had failed to identify 73 active workers who had links to terrorism.

Rebecca Roering, an assistant federal security director for the Transport Security Administration (TSA) at Minneapolis-St Paul, told Senate lawmakers that officers are not valued by the leadership and were under a great deal of scrutiny.

The TSA has hired into leadership positions a number of former airline executives and others who place more emphasis on customer service and passenger wait times then on security and detection rates. Any wait time deemed excessive requires immediate reporting and analysis and corrective action,” said Roering.

Roering said the same attention didn’t apply when testing local officers for their ability to check for weapons or explosives and was “not associated with any performance metric.

READ MORE: Inspectors audit shows TSA failed to vet 73 workers 'linked to terrorism' - report

She referred to a 2014 survey of federal employees that found the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the TSA's parent agency, had the lowest government ratings.

"The job of a TSA officer is a challenging one, with a great deal of pressure and scrutiny. A culture of fear and distrust has been created in the agency also impacting the morale and performance of our employees. This is clearly documented in the results of the survey," Roering told lawmakers.

Of particularly concern, Roering said the TSA has significantly expanded its PreCheck program. This platform enables passengers to by-pass security by applying and paying in advance for security clearance, which if approved grants them accelerated check in for five years.

“In 2013 I expressed my concerns about the PreCheck, and I later reported the concerns to the officer of special counsel for investigations. TSH is handing out PreCheck status like Halloween candy in an effort to expedited passengers as quickly as possible despite self-admitted security gaps being created by the process," said Roering.

READ MORE: TSA fail! Agents' success in nabbing weapons, explosives, smugglers only 5% - report

Roering said the program did not meet the expectations in terms of volume, so PreCheck rules kept expanding to make it more efficient.

A witness at the hearing, Jennifer Grover of the Government Accountability Office said while the agency had enrolled one million passengers, “about 7.2 million travelers routinely get PreCheck boarding pass stamps, many because of their affiliation with [the] US military, or other groups.

The DHS Inspector General John Roth later testified that his office raised similar concerns, but the “TSA declined to take our recommendations.”

He also said he has concerns about whether the agency understands the depths of security risks.

“I worry about this,” Roth said.

During the opening of the hearing, the Senate Chair, Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) said the agency had two conflicting missions -- 100 percent security for airlines and public transport, and complete efficiency.

He said it was an enormous challenge for an agency that screens 1.1 million checked bags, and three million carry-on bags for explosives and other dangerous items on a daily basis. Plus, the agency is already responsible for 25,000 domestic flight per day, and 2,500 outbound international flights per day. As well as securing four million miles (6.4 million km) of roadways, 140,000 miles (225,000 km) of railroad track, 600,000 bridges and tunnels, 350 maritime ports, and 2.6 million miles (4.1 million km) of pipeline.

“It’s an enormous challenge. So we need to recognize that reality…take a look at this problem as one that’s a significant challenge and talk about it as honestly as possible if we’re going to really find solutions,” said Sen. Johnson.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee called the TSA hearing in response to a leaked report revealing significant flaws in the agency's terror-vetting process. The document produced by the DHS Inspector General’s Office said the TSA had failed to identify 73 active workers who had links to terrorism.

Senate lawmakers were getting their first chance to question officials about the findings in a series of undercover sting operations in which agents passed through security with prohibited items with a 95 percent success rate. That report lead to reassigning of the acting TSA secretary last week.

The hearing was brought to an abrupt halt after Capitol Police said they had received a bomb threat in the room next to the hearing and ordered an evacuation.