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.

"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."

We Recommend