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Study shows TSA screeners perform poorly

San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Security screening run by private contractors at San Francisco's airport is a success, director John Martin testified Thursday, but a new federal analysis says that all security – whether performed by private firms or the federal workforce -- is not doing an acceptable job of protecting the flying public.

San Francisco International Airport is the largest of five airports in the country that since November 2002 have participated in a two-year pilot program in which private firms have been hired, under Transportation Security Administration oversight, to perform all passenger and baggage screening. Other airports will get the chance to go the private route after November 2004.

Martin told a House Transportation subcommittee that the pilot program, which employs about 1,085 screeners, "has resulted in operations that have not only provided state-of-the-art security, but has also delivered excellent customer service while substantially reducing the number of screeners.''

But the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department said tests performed on passenger and baggage screening operations under the post-Sept. 11, 2001, airport security operation showed no difference between those performed by private contractors or federal employees.

"Available data from limited covert testing suggest they performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly,'' said Clark Kent Ervin, the inspector general. The specific performance data is classified. A report from the management consulting firm Bearing Point, conducted for the Transportation Security Administration, echoed Ervin.

"At San Francisco, there is no evidence that it is different than federally screened airports within its category in security effectiveness,'' the report said.

The report also noted that the cost was about the same at San Francisco and elsewhere and that customer satisfaction was mixed. While waiting times for passengers were shorter in San Francisco, the public had less confidence in a security process not run directly by federal workers.

Martin's stand was music to the ears of the committee's Republicans, who say the security agency's Washington bureaucracy stands in the way of allowing airports the flexibility they need to hire and manage their screeners, who under a Homeland Security Department ruling aren't allowed to join unions.

"While problems with the Soviet-style federal screening operations should raise the serious concern of Congress, anyone who has seen the classified performance results and detection rates of this system and does not call for reform in the program is derelict in their responsibility,'' said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the subcommittee chairman.

"That is why I have been a major proponent of a decentralized screening program,'' he added, saying that the pilot program "has had a very positive effect on aviation security post-Sept. 11.''

Mica said classified results he had seen about how well screeners do in detecting explosive devices "scare me.''

He called for a closed meeting with Homeland Security officials in the next 10 days to discuss ways to improve performance and said if they wouldn't come, he would issue subpoenas for them. But security agency officials said they wanted such a meeting, and soon.

Some of the committee Democrats said the hiring of private security screeners, who get the same pay and benefits as those who work directly for the federal government agency, was part of a Bush administration drive to privatize the federal workforce. "If I didn't know better, I'd think TSA is almost complicit so we can go to private security screeners,'' said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

He and other committee members said the Transportation Security Administration has given the airports in the pilot program flexibility denied to the federal security directors at airports with federal workers. For instance, at SFO, contractor Covenant Aviation Security has made the airport the first in the country to employ part-time screeners, 143 of them, to help at peak times and keep passenger lines moving.

Covenant also can use screeners for non-screening functions and has an easier time making hiring decisions, without Washington's direct control.

But Martin said the airport's embrace of new technology set San Francisco apart. San Francisco screens 85 percent of checked baggage for explosives, using new three-dimensional CAT scan machines under a $100 million program.

The airport also has a central video control room where security officers can watch all 39 passenger security lanes, at 11 checkpoints, and quickly move screeners to handle lines.

The airport also uses biometrics to screen employees entering the airfield, but not getting aboard planes, Martin said.

Martin said he wants to make the private screeners permanent.

"I think we are a lot safer by having the in-line screening machines for checked luggage,'' he said.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said it is no wonder that airports are interested in using private firms, if the security agency gives them extra leeway. His questioning prompted the agency's acting administrator, David Stone, to pledge to give all airport security directors more flexibility to handle their local needs.

Also, DeFazio said, if the public says it feels safer with federal employees as screeners, there shouldn't be a rush to privatize the system.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, said, "We should be replicating SFO's success. The TSA should give flexibility to all our partners, not just those in the pilot program.''

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