US: Contractors Complain of TSA Limits

Publisher Name: 
Washington Post

A pilot program to test the effectiveness of privately employed screeners at U.S. airports is yielding few security innovations or cost savings because of constraints imposed by the Transportation Security Administration, government investigators and private contractors said.

The program is aimed at determining whether employees of private security companies could screen passengers and luggage as well as or better than the federal workforce hired last year. But screening companies yesterday told the House Committee on Government Reform that they had little flexibility in operating security checkpoints and were prevented from adequately training their employees.

"We are frustrated," with the TSA, said John DeMell, president of FirstLine Transportation Security Inc. FirstLine employs 700 screeners at Kansas City International. "The private sector should be able to look for overlap and ways to save money."

The companies also said they were frustrated that the TSA denied their requests to train screeners to identify bombs and interview suspicious passengers, and to bring up to speed screener supervisors, who hadn't been trained by the TSA.

McNeil Technologies Inc. said it finally brought in law enforcement officers specializing in bomb detection to train its screeners in Rochester, N.Y., even though it wasn't sure that TSA headquarters had approved it.

TSA said it does not allow private companies to begin new security techniques without its approval because "we have an obligation to make sure all security procedures are well coordinated," said spokesman Brian Turmail.

Under a law passed after the terrorist attacks in 2001, airports will be able to return to private-sector airport screeners by November 2004 and some have already expressed an interest in doing so.

Five airports -- San Francisco International; Kansas City International; Greater Rochester International; Tupelo Regional Airport in Mississippi.; and Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming -- participate in the TSA test program.

The TSA said it has hired BearingPoint Inc., a McLean consulting firm, to assess the performance of the private-sector and government security screeners. The report is due early next year.

Cathleen A. Berrick, director of the General Accounting Office's Homeland Security and Justice division, said she doubted that Bearing Point's work would be very useful. It is difficult to tell whether public or private screeners are better or worse than the staff employed before the terrorist attacks because the TSA has collected little information about screener performance, she said.

By August 2003, TSA had tested only 2 percent of its workforce, using covert teams to sneak simulated guns and explosives through checkpoints, and the results are not made public, the GAO said. "We think it's going to be challenging for the contractor to do an assessment because of the lack of data," Berrick said.

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