WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn. entered the following statement into the record Tuesday on the Federal Aviation Administration conference report, which contains troubling language on TSA’s Screening Partnership Program. The House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security is holding a hearing on the issue this afternoon.
Mr. President. I rise today to voice my support to the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act conference report which was passed by the Senate last night, and will provide a greater sense of financial security than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has seen in a long time. No agency should be subjected to the budget uncertainties that FAA has been forced to experience, nor strung along year after year unable to make long term plans. For more than four years, the FAA has operated under more than 20 short-term funding extensions. I think that is unprecedented in the history of agency funding. At any rate, it is no way to run a railroad, or a national aviation system.
I also support the conference report because it would finally allow the FAA to move forward on the NextGen air navigation program; would give the Passenger’s “Bill of Rights” the force of law; and would provide billions of dollars to improve and develop public airports across the country. For these reasons, the legislation is long overdue and sorely needed.
The conference report, however, does contain a provision about aviation security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that is deeply troubling to me and about which I feel duty bound to express my disapproval.
At stake is TSA’s management of the Screening Partnership Program (SPP), which allows a limited number of airports around the country to replace Transportation Security Officers (TSO) with private contractors to screen passengers and their baggage. TSA has implemented this program at airports where, due to low traffic volume, full time, year-round federal staff is unnecessary. A handful of larger airports take part in the program so TSA can measure and assess its performance and cost effectiveness against the private contractors. It is telling that TSA’s assessment after comparing the two systems is that it can secure airports more economically than private screeners can.
Regrettably, some of my colleagues in the House and Senate are resolved to undermine TSA – and therefore airport security itself – by advocating for the pre-9/11 system of screening by private contractors. My response to that is: how quickly we forget.
Mr. President, we have already tried an aviation security system run by private contractors. It very tragically did not work. The 9/11 attacks did not occur because of one, two, or three specific vulnerabilities. They occurred because a number of our defenses – including our system of airport screening – were simply inadequate.
I know everyone has vivid memories of the days after the 9/11 attacks, and it is hard to forget the dramatic loss of confidence the public felt for the aviation security system. Air travel dropped off precipitously in the weeks and months after 9/11, the aviation industry was shaken to its core, and our economy suffered because of it.
It became clear to many of us that aviation security was inseparable from national security, and we could not, and should not, rely on the private sector to do the job. The security of our skies would have to become a government responsibility. Americans need to be safe and secure wherever and whenever they traveled. And while I would not want to cast blame or criticism on any one contractor, we’ve already witnessed the results of a system utilizing private security companies which were constantly pressured to focus on costs first, and security second.
Less than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a bipartisan group of 21 Senators introduced the legislation that would create TSA and turn airport screening over to federal officials. Barely a month after 9/11, the Senate passed that bill by a vote of one hundred to zero. The bipartisanship of that vote was heartening and demonstrated a unity among members that I wish we could experience more often. In the years since, we have had a few near misses, and our defenses have been penetrated more than once, but no hijackings or terrorist incidents have been successfully carried out. In large part, we have a dedicated corps of TSOs to thank for that.
I know it is fashionable in some quarters to criticize TSA. Understandably, people are unhappy with pat-downs, body scans, and invasions of privacy. But TSA establishes its policies for a reason. They are a direct response to real terrorist threats. And they have evolved as the threat has evolved. When a terrorist put explosives in his shoes and tried to light them afire mid flight in 2001, TSA asked passengers to remove their shoes for screening. When a terrorist plot was uncovered in 2006 that involved lighting flammable liquids aboard several planes, liquids, except in small quantities, were prohibited. After the Christmas Day 2009 attempted attack with explosives hidden in a terrorist’s clothing, better screening technology was developed. These are not hypothetical cases or academic scenarios. They are real incidents and the reason that TSA makes so many demands on the flying public. And we should not delude ourselves or the American people into thinking that adopting a contract workforce will eliminate the need for body scanners, pat-downs or any other security procedure TSA determines is necessary to secure air travel; regardless of whether an U.S. airport uses federal screeners or private ones, the security procedures implemented are the same.
Yet, a provision has been tucked into this bill that would make it more difficult for TSA to maintain its current system by lowering the burden of proof for admitting additional airports to the Screening Partnership Program. Right now, airports must demonstrate that a private screening workforce would be more effective, secure, and efficient, than the TSA. The standard tucked into this bill, however, “would only require airports to demonstrate that using private screeners would not compromise security or detrimentally affect the cost-efficiency or the effectiveness of screening.”
While the TSA Administrator would still have the authority to deny an application to the Screening Partnership Program, this lower standard would make it far more difficult for him to do so. TSA Administrator Pistole has said that the Screening Partnership Program should be used judiciously and that airport screening is and should remain a core mission for the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11, and I agree with him wholeheartedly.
Another provision in the bill strikes me as counter-productive. This provision would require TSA to provide recommendations to an airport that was denied its application to the SPP on how that airport can overcome the denial, if it decides to resubmit its application. If TSA believes that it can screen passengers and baggage better and with more cost efficiency than a private contractor, why would it provide tips on how an airport can escape that system?
Private screening could also limit TSA’s ability to react nimbly to intelligence threats. If screeners are privately employed and managed airport by airport, TSA may not be able to respond effectively by shifting personnel to where it is most needed or modifying procedures if it cannot exert direct control over screeners.
Mr. President, private screening at airports could undermine not just public confidence in the aviation security system but in aviation security, itself. We have been there and experienced the consequences of private screening. The American public must feel secure when it travels, and security is the first priority of TSA.
Ultimately, I voted for the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act. But I believe we should reconsider and revisit the language related to TSA’s Screening Partnership Program. I would urge my colleagues to remember the lessons learned after 9/11 and work with me to ensure we won’t make the same mistakes again.