TSA chief promises to protect screeners

Reversing a post-9/11 policy, the head of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said yesterday he will take steps to cover the nation's 43,000 airport checkpoint and baggage screeners under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.

TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told a congressional panel he believes it is "a good idea" for screeners to have the same protections from employer retaliation that apply to most other workers throughout federal government agencies.

"I think it's a fine suggestion," said Hawley, responding to inquiries from U.S. Rep. William Pascrell (D-8th Dist.) about protecting TSA workers.

Pascrell has raised questions about the TSA's policies toward whistleblowers following an Oct. 14 story in The Sunday Star-Ledger outlining a series of cases in which TSA employees said they were targeted for retribution because they disclosed legitimate, serious problems within the agency.

In an unrelated matter yesterday before the House Homeland Security Committee, Hawley also flatly denied that any TSA officials knowingly tipped off agency employees about pending covert tests in an April 28, 2006, e-mail.

The e-mail was released by Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the committee. It was sent under the name of Mike Restovich, then the assistant administrator for the TSA's Office of Security Operations, with an all-capitalized subject line: "Notice of Possible Security Test."

But Hawley testified that Restovich did not send the e-mail, calling it "a cut-and-paste job" by another person. The administrator said it was sent by a male employee whom he would not identify, explaining that the individual believed there was a possible probe of airport security systems by unauthorized individuals, perhaps even al Qaeda operatives.

"There was no intent to tip off," Hawley said, while acknowledging that it was a mistake for the employee to send the e-mail.

Restovich, he said, learned of the e-mail only when it appeared on his computer screen, and acted to recall the correspondence 13 minutes after it had been sent.

Despite the e-mail being sent to hundreds of top TSA officials, Hawley said he had not been among them. He said he only learned about the e-mail when it was reported by the media, and he urged the committee to await the findings of an ongoing investigation by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.

Skeptical committee members, however, said that at the very least, Hawley should have been told of the problem immediately by Restovich.

Restovich has taken a new TSA assignment in London and declined comment.

Clark Ervin, a former Department of Homeland Security inspector general, said the e-mail fits "a pattern" of TSA personnel previously tipping off screeners about tests at airports in San Francisco and Jackson, Miss.

"TSA's compromise of security testing compromises the security of the nation," testified Ervin, while also pointing out that screeners have consistently posted "dismal" results since the TSA took over airport security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Performance problems were underscored by a Government Accountability Office report released last night, which found investigators were able to smuggle bomb parts past TSA screeners at 19 airports this year. The GAO found that "our nation's airlines were vulnerable to a suicide bomber using commercially available materials to detonate an explosive device onboard an airplane."

With respect to the whistleblower law, Hawley did not provide details of the steps he would take to ensure that screeners are covered, but Pascrell said the administrator assured him it would be done by year's end.

TSA screeners now have limited whistleblower protections. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel may review their complaints, but its findings are not binding on the TSA. If TSA screeners are included under the law, they also would be able to appeal OSC decisions to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and a federal appeals court.