The Senate Homeland Security Committee will hear testimony on the 95% failure rate in audits of their airport checkpoints, but another report will put even more pressure on DHS officials. The DHS Inspector General found that TSA, which screens prospective and current employees of airports and airlines with access to sensitive areas, missed 73 people who have links to suspected terrorist activities or personnel:
Investigators found 73 people were cleared by the Transportation Security Administration to work in sensitive jobs at U.S. airports despite possible links to terrorism in their backgrounds, according to a government report made public on Monday.
The lapse was partly due to the TSA not having access to all names on the federal government’s terrorist watchlists, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general said. In addition, local criminal background checks on employees at 467 airports were even “less effective,” the report concluded. …
The 73 people with “possible terrorism-related information” in their backgrounds were employed by major airlines, airport vendors and others. The redacted report didn’t identify the individuals, their current employment status or what jobs they held.
“TSA acknowledged that these individuals were cleared for access to secure airport areas despite representing a potential transportation security threat,” the inspector general said.
In this case, however, the fault does not entirely lie within TSA, or perhaps not at all — but with DHS and the bureaucratic impulse in post-9/11 reforms. The reason these 73 individuals got missed was because TSA was not allowed to access the entire terrorism watchlist produced by the US intelligence community, the IG makes clear.
Why TSA got excluded from any watchlists given the critical nature of their mission is a question which the IG’s report fails to answer in any satisfactory manner. DHS and TSA owe their existence to the realization that we failed to “connect the dots” prior to 9/11, which left us vulnerable to a detectable terrorist plot. Supposedly the post-9/11 reforms eliminated these bureaucratic barriers. Instead, we seem to have only shifted them around, leaving us vulnerable again but with an illusion of security. In my column for The Week, I argue that Congress needs to take a look at the entire post-9/11 apparatus before we learn the same lesson in the same way:
When applicants showed up on the watchlists produced by U.S. intelligence, the TSA found and flagged them. The problem is that the government didn’t provide TSA with access to all of the codes needed to find watchlisted individuals. TSA “is not authorized to receive all terrorism-related categories under current interagency watchlisting policy,” the Inspector General office wrote in its summary. Furthermore, on criminal rather than terrorism issues, TSA could not do follow-up vetting on those with existing credentials “due to current law and FBI policies” that restrict them from getting that data. Instead, TSA “relied on the credential holders themselves to report disqualifying crimes to the airports where they worked.”
In other words, our security now rests on criminals self-reporting and the data from the most sensitive classes of terrorist risk being withheld from the agency that arguably needs it the most. That sounds even worse than our security posture before 9/11, and a great waste of money and resources.
The great lesson from 9/11, Congress and independent panels found, was a failure to “connect the dots” that could have alerted law enforcement and intelligence agencies to the terror plot that killed almost 3,000 Americans. That lesson drove Congress to create DHS and the National Counterterrorism Center, and to fold TSA within that structure. Now, almost 14 years later, Americans discover that TSA routinely fails tests on its core mission while the government keeps critical information from the agency.
These repeated failures at TSA and DHS should have Congress looking for another approach to security — one that actually works, verifiably and consistently.