Pointed Questions for TSA Chief at Budget Hearing

There was plenty of criticism Tuesday by a Senate committee considering the Transportation Security Administration's proposed fiscal 2009 budget, from foot-dragging on security upgrades to increased fee proposals.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee grilled TSA chief Kip Hawley over impending deadlines for aviation security upgrades, set by the Sept. 11 commission law (PL 110-53), and the performance of newly launched technology.

"The administration's complete overhaul of the TSA budget structure makes it unclear whether the mandates in the [Sept. 11] Act are receiving resources for implementation," said committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii.

One of the most controversial proposals of President Bush's $7.1 billion TSA budget is a four-year, 50-cent per flight ($1 one-way maximum) surcharge to existing passenger security fees. The administration estimates the surcharge would collect $426 million in fiscal 2009, and approximately $1.8 billion over four years, to purchase explosive detectors and to expedite universal checked baggage screening.

Hawley said the first $250 million collected from the surcharge would be used to make aging airport infrastructure compatible with explosives detection machines and other new screening systems. TSA has been under fire in recent years for making slow progress in implementing new screening technology.

The fee "would accelerate our deployment [of the machines] to four years," he said, "from what is now going to take more than a decade" under yearly appropriations.

Inouye asked why the administration would push a fee increase after Congress recently rejected a similar Bush proposal in the fiscal 2009 Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization (HR 2881).

Hawley said the fee's time limit made it different from other requests, but some panel members didn't seem convinced.

"I think the temporary surcharge is temporary only in imaginations," said Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Ranking Republican Ted Stevens said the surcharge wasn't fair to frequent flyers, referring specifically to Alaska, his home state, where he said, "70 percent of our cities are reached only by air. We fly probably 10, 15 times the amount of any Americans and yet I find that there's no recognition of that in this plan."

Stevens asked TSA to consider making exceptions for intrastate flights or those departing from small airports.

Hawley said the fee is intended to function as a "large-scale tool," but said he would explore Stevens' concerns.

Congressional doubts resurfaced Tuesday over whether TSA would be able to screen 100 percent of passenger airline cargo by the 2010 deadline.

In January, two Democratic House Homeland Security panel members, Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, asked the Government Accountability Office to review whether TSA's cargo standards are "commensurate with the level of security for the screening of passenger checked baggage," as required by the Sept. 11 commission law.

Cathleen A. Berrick, director of Homeland Security and Justice for the GAO, told the panel she was aware of TSA cargo screening plans and pilot programs, but "we haven't yet seen the specific details and plans on how TSA plans to implement" universal cargo screening by 2010.

When asked whether the plan technology would be ready, Berrick said the Homeland Security Science and Technology Office "which is spearheading the technology effort, in partnership with TSA, has been slow."

She did say TSA has significantly strengthened the security of domestically transported cargo but "there's been less of a focus by [Customs and Border Protection] and TSA on cargo coming into the United States from foreign countries."

Some senators didn't seem confident in Hawley's explanation that TSA's plan to screen cargo aircraft doesn't include screening each package because "from a risk perspective . . . the passenger aircraft represents a bigger risk."

"I'd question that," Stevens said.

Berrick was more optimistic that TSA would meet the 2010 deadline for its domestic airline passenger vetting program, Secure Flight.

She reported "significant progress ... a lot more discipline and rigor into the development" but said TSA still needs better program cost and schedule estimates.

Bush's budget requests a $32 million increase for Secure Flight, which Hawley said would "accelerate implementation ... with this committee's ongoing support, we anticipate beginning the Secure Flight Program at the end of 2008 and full program implementation in the coming year.

In reaction to recent GAO reports detailing TSA's mixed record of implementing screening technology, panel members expressed unease over funding new checkpoint equipment.

Berrick told panel members that "to date, TSA has made limited progress in fielding emerging technologies due to performance, maintenance and planning issues."

At a cost of $20 million, GAO also reported that 114 explosive trace portals, sometimes called "puffer machines," are currently being stored because of maintenance concerns.

Hawley explained the machines "compress air out, and lint and other things go up into the filters and can clog them ... we're working with the industry to make them more reliable."

He said storage was required because broken portals block checkpoints without "providing that level of security ... so we are insisting on improved performance before fully deploying those."

But when Hawley praised whole body imaging systems that are currently being deployed as "a highly effective technology," McCaskill asked, "Have we checked for the maintenance on those technologies to make sure we don't end up with $20 million of those in storage because they don't work?"

"They're working in other places around the world," Hawley replied. "We've had extensive testing of them."

Committee members also grilled Hawley over two recent media storms: the security of foreign aircraft repair stations and the federal air marshal program.

Foreign aircraft shops have long been accused of carrying out inferior repairs, posing a terrorism risk. Media reports have indicated the number of repairs done in overseas shops has dramatically increased.

The FAA supervises maintenance at the stations, but TSA oversees security of the facilities and has inspected only 14 of the 700 foreign stations, upon invitation.

When asked why TSA hasn't produced the long-overdue rule for use of such facilities, Hawley said, "I would say as a technical matter of threat and intelligence that it does not rise to the top of the charts of things that we have an obligation to stop."

"I will tell you that someone inviting you to audit is generally a pretty good sign you don't need to," McCaskill said. "This is a gaping hole" in security.

John Kerry, D-Mass., also quizzed Hawley over a recent CNN report which asserted that only 1 percent of flights have federal air marshals on board.

"Congress needs assurance, and the public needs assurance that this program is really working and that the people who would do us harm don't have to bet on some mathematical guessing game," he said.

Hawley called the CNN report "completely wrong."

"We flow every day our federal air marshal flight coverage based on threats," he said. "Anybody wanting to do harm to an American aircraft has to know that in flights to or from areas that are at all interesting from the threat perspective, air marshals are covering those flights — maybe not 100 percent of those flights but air marshals are covering those flights."

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