WASHINGTON, D.C. – As concerning reports surface involving the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs today held a hearing entitled “Oversight of the Transportation Security Administration: First-Hand and Government Watchdog Accounts of Agency Challenges". At the hearing, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) raised the issue of systemic problems and a lack of consistency within TSA, citing a recent report where TSA failed to identify and report 73 people that were flagged under terrorism activity codes.

The Senator questioned Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth, Transportation Security and Coast Guard Issues Director Jennifer Grover of the Homeland Security and Justice Team at the Government Accountability Office, and Los Angeles-based Federal Air Marshal Robert MacLean about the best way to empower officers and fix inconsistencies within the TSA.

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SENATOR ERNST: Thank you Mr. Chair and thank you Ranking Member Carper for calling this very, very timely hearing today. And I do want to thank all of our witnesses with us today, and we appreciate your testimony very, very much. Senator Carper, I think, touched on a lot of the questions that I really had. I do believe that there has been an issue with the lack of consistency and I think it’s something that TSA has been suffering for, from across the various aspects of the organization, and its mission, for a while now. But referenced in all of your testimonies, really much, across the board, is varying degrees of lack of certainty and consistency with people, processes, and operations. And these problems, whether it’s the morale of the organization, the personnel or the day to day operations, they’re just so systemic. So you’ve mentioned some ideas on where you’d like to see leadership go, a couple of suggestions for Congress, but bottom line, do you think it’s really more of a management issue for the Admiral? Hopefully he’ll be confirmed shortly, but are these the issues that the Admiral can influence through his management style, or is it something that needs to be addressed through legislation? I’d like to hear the perspective that you have on that. You know, one or the other, or a combination of both. Ms. Grover, if you would start please? 

MS. GROVER: I think it’s really several issues. I do think that there is a concern about morale at TSA, as was mentioned earlier, morale at DHS as a department is very low, and morale at TSA is even lower. And that does affect people’s engagement to their work. But there are weaknesses in the equipment that TSA uses in terms of it’s effectiveness, and there are challenges in encouraging a workforce of 45 thousand people to do the job properly every day, that’s just a lot of people to manage, so it’s morale, it’s management, it’s attention to the technical specifications of the equipment. And, I would like to see TSA spending less time on standing up new programs, and more time on making sure that the programs that have stood up are working properly.

SENATOR ERNST: That’s good advice, thank you, I appreciate that. Mr. MacLean?

MR. MACLEAN: Well a big problem with the air marshall mission is that there’s nothing going on. Which is s a good thing. There’s no arrests happening, there’s no casework happening, as you would get in a CBP or a border patrol station, you have hundreds of thousands of arrests, hundreds of drug cases happening, so the managers are busy, they have things to do. But when an air marshall commits an infraction, it causes a huge ripple in the water, and a lot of the local managers don’t want to make a decision on something, so they wait on headquarters to make it for them. So I think a possible solution is to put the air marshals underneath the purview of a pure law enforcement agency.  A lot of – there’s a huge amount of border patrol agents and CBPO officers in the Air Marshal Service and they feel like it was when they were under the INS. It was an agency that had conflicting missions – one was to naturalize people, and then at the same time to catch and deport them, so they feel that that’s a problem. And because they feel there’s so little casework, so little to do – which is great because there’s nobody dying – but bored managers are looking for something to do, or they’re afraid to proactively take care of a situation until they get a phone call from D.C.

SENATOR ERNST: So, you would say to separate the two programs and empower, really empower those officers to do more?

MR. MACLEAN: Well, many air marshals say why don’t we go under the purview of Customs and Border Protection? The facilities are already in all of the airports, and the management is already there, it could be a good transition. It happened once before. The original Air Marshal Director had put the Air Marshal Service underneath Immigration and Customs enforcement, and he did that because he saw the air marshals burning out. They were bored. You hire these high speed, eager beaver guys and gals, and they get out there, and they’re strapped down. So you have, it’s like pressure cookers. Things happen. And he saw it – saw it’s going to be a quick burnout. So he put them into ICE in order for them to have a better career path, and going into making arrests and starting investigations.

SENATOR ERNST: Yeah, very interesting, I appreciate that. And then I do want to address some of what Senator Johnson alluded to, in his statements too, about the recent media reports that indicated by Inspector General that TSA failed to identify at least 73 people employed in the industry that were flagged under terrorism related activity codes. And, according to the TSA, part of the reason for this is that the agency is not authorized to receive all of the information under current interagency watch listing policy. I have huge concerns with that, as well as I’m sure most of our public does as well. Employees are often granted special access without having gone through a thorough background check, and Inspector General, if you could speak to that just very briefly.

HON. ROTH: We share your concern and the summary of what it is that we’ve found is accurate, there’s the TIDE database, which is the large sort-of Terrorist Identity Datamart Environment. TSA, by law, didn’t have access to some of the codes. In 2014, the administrator asked for access, but again it’s a process that apparently is taking some time, so it isn’t quite there yet. But I think they’re moving quickly on it.

SENATOR ERNST: Ok, I thank you all very much for your testimony today. Thank you Mr. Chair.

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