The heads of two powerful House committees have asked federal aviation officials to explain relentless security breakdowns at Newark Liberty International Airport, saying the lapses at one of the country's busiest hubs suggest deeper national problems.
In a letter to Edmund "Kip" Hawley, director of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the lawmakers said they "believe the problems raised in Newark are illustrative of some significant areas of dysfunction at TSA that undermine aviation security."
The three-page letter cited a series of investigative and news reports by The Star-Ledger over the past several months. It was signed by Democrats Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who heads the Homeland Security Committee, and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who is in charge of the subcommittee on transportation security. Rep. William Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., also signed the letter.
The lawmakers wanted to know why covert federal agents were able to sneak fake explosives and guns past checkpoint and baggage screeners at Newark Liberty in 20 of 22 attempts in October. They also criticized TSA agents for repeatedly questioning Newark Liberty security staff to find out who may have leaked internal information about the poor test results to the newspaper.
"We were troubled that staff at Newark feel that there is more interest in hunting down the leaker than addressing an abysmally high failure rate in the screener testing," the lawmakers wrote.
The legislators also want to know why Marcus Arroyo, the TSA's first federal security director at Newark Liberty, was paid his $156,752 annual salary for nearly 10 months after he was ousted from his post after numerous security breaches.
Last, they asked whether the TSA made any changes in testing procedures for promotions after a top Newark Liberty official resigned while under investigation over the leaking of interview questions to favored applicants.
TSA officials declined comment on the letter.
Mark Hatfield Jr., Arroyo's replacement, referred questions to agency headquarters.
Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman, noted the agency had just received the letter.
"As always, we will provide the members with a timely response to their questions," she added.
Democratic legislators, fresh off their party's recent takeover of the House, will have significantly increased clout to question the TSA's performance and actions. Some, like Pascrell, have been longtime critics of the agency.
The recent spate of problems at Newark Liberty follows years of security lapses at the hub, which was one of three airports used by the teams of terrorists who hijacked planes on Sept. 11, 2001.
Serious staffing shortages and poor screener morale have exacerbated the troubles the TSA has encountered at Newark Liberty since taking over from private security outfits in mid-2002, according to screeners and supervisors.
Thompson, Jackson Lee and Pascrell demanded answers to questions about the "three troubling issues" involving the poor test scores, Arroyo's extra pay and the promotion scandal.
"The first instance brings to the fore the difficulties screeners have in coming forward to expose gaps in security and the absence of federal whistle-blower protections," the lawmakers' letter said.
"The second instance, the appearance of a golden parachute for a senior-level person who was removed for performance issues, seems to raise fundamental questions about how TSA manages its workforce," it continued. "The third instance raises the disturbing prospect that cheating was undertaken to ensure that staff favored by management, regardless of merit, were advanced up the career ladder over more deserving candidates."
Pascrell promised that lawmakers would hold the TSA accountable.
"God knows what the hell's happening at other airports," said Pascrell, who is trying to remain on the Homeland Security Committee along with his recent appointment to Ways and Means.
Pascrell, during a phone interview, said he is hopeful that Hatfield, who took over after Arroyo's ouster, can make the changes necessary to fix Newark Liberty's problems.
"He's got a hell of a cleanup to do here, and he better do it," said Pascrell. "We're going to use the power of oversight."
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