TSA Adds Document Checking to List of Duties

July 23, 2007
Administration, Congress push to expand responsibility

The Transportation Security Administration has added the checking of travel documents to its list of responsibilities at a few high-traffic airports -- a potential responsibility shift signifying the start of a national changing of the guard.

Travel document verification is the responsibility of commercial airlines at the majority of large U.S. airports, but in the last six months TSA has taken on the duties at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall and Phoenix Sky Harbor International airports, adding New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to that list as of last week.

President Bush's fiscal 2008 budget request calls for $60 million to add an additional 1,329 transportation security officers capable of checking travel documents at the 40 highest risk airports in the country. The agency already has roughly 700 transportation security officers trained to screen travel documents.

Both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2008 Homeland Security appropriations bill (HR 2638, S 1644) would provide $45 million to fund TSA travel-document checkers, $15 million less than the president's request. The House version of the bill doesn't fund the entire request because the lawmakers say all 1,329 employees won't be on the payroll by October 2007 due to training and hiring time considerations. Senate appropriators say $45 million would be sufficient to fully staff the 40 highest-risk airports.

TSA initiated the transfer of document-checking responsibilities to gain more control of the airport environment and create another layer of security designed to keep terrorists off of aircraft.

"Now, trained security officers will have the capability to detect individuals who attempt to board an aircraft with suspect documents," said TSA Administrator Kip Hawley. "Fraudulent IDs and boarding documents can subvert the security process and this effort sends someone with a fake ID to law enforcement and not the boarding gate."

TSA says having transportation security officers check travel documents at the head of the airport checkpoint lines significantly upgrades surveillance because they will be given sensitive security information -- including specific threat and watch list intelligence --- that contracted personnel can't legally access.

Furthermore, transportation security officers will be able to use the travel document inspection as an opportunity to take note of each passenger's behavior and disposition.

Transportation security officers who check travel documents will undergo training in suspicious behavior observation techniques and fraudulent ID recognition, in addition to the 190 hours of basic training every TSO receives.

The extra training requires about one working day for transportation security officers to learn to identify fraudulent travel documents and pick up behavior observation techniques. The behavior recognition component is an abbreviated version of a longer course taught to other TSA employees.

In addition to this training, transportation security officers also use technologies to validate travel documents, according to the Department of Homeland Security brief of the president's fiscal 2008 budget request. The brief listed document scanners, black lights and magnifying equipment as machines likely to be used by the new document checkers.

Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, said TSA's document-checking responsibilities began at a handful of checkpoints in March 2007 and has gradually spread to all the checkpoints in the airport. "To this point it has worked well," he added.

Similarly, TSA began checking IDs at only two security checkpoints at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in December 2006, but was operating at all seven by the end of February. Deborah Ostreicher, a spokeswoman for the Phoenix airport said the transition "has gone pretty smoothly," with TSA document-checkers gradually lowering passenger waiting times as they have gained experience.

Transportation security officers began checking travel documents at "a number of security checkpoints" at John F. Kennedy International Airport in late June.

TSA employees also have taken on document checking responsibilities at smaller airports around the country. The agency now performs the checks at more than 200 small airports.

This story originally appeared in CQ Homeland Security.

Source: CQ Today Round-the-clock coverage of news from Capitol Hill. ©2007 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.