WASHINGTON – Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Tuesday morning during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) hearing that the federal government must “start prioritizing what we can do that is going to improve security in the most effective way.” Witnesses from the front lines of transportation security testified that, in light of the high rate of failure of cutting-edge technology being used by the TSA, security dogs might be an outside-the-box but viable answer to problems highlighted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG).
“I worked at a border patrol check point. I was blown away with what a dog can sense,” testified Robert Maclean, a federal air marshal at the Los Angeles field office, after Johnson asked witnesses about using dogs to detect threats that can be missed by existing detectors. “I’ve seen heroin wrapped in coffee, duct-taped, Saran-wrapped, hermetically sealed, and then dunked in a tank of gasoline and the tank sealed and secure — and the dog still hits on it.”
Rebecca Roering, assistant federal security director at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said she’d witnessed the use of a decoy carrying an explosive in a backpack or concealed on his or her body, and in every case the dog was able to detect the explosive.
Jennifer Grover, director of transportation security and Coast Guard issues for the Homeland Security and Justice Team at the GAO, added that the TSA’s canine teams have been found to be effective but expensive.
“They may be expensive, but if we aren’t 100 percent effective, think about how expensive that would be,” said Johnson.
The hearing, titled “Oversight of the Transportation Security Administration: First-Hand and Government Watchdog Accounts of Agency Challenges,” included testimony from John Roth, DHS Inspector General, in addition to that from Maclean, Roering and Grover.
Johnson opened the hearing on Tuesday commenting that TSA’s two missions are “by and large … almost completely contradictory.” On the one hand the nation seeks 100 percent security and on the other hand complete efficiency in processing travelers, Johnson said. “It’s an enormously complex and difficult task … and we’re finding out that that contradictory goal – we are not meeting both of those, not by a long shot.”
Johnson asked the panel to address concerns that the TSA’s pre-check program is losing its effectiveness. “How many people . . . actually went through a thorough vetting that we would expect, versus, under pressure to, again, accomplish the through-put objective, how many have been approved in a very watered down process?”
Grover responded that to date, there are about 1 million people who have applied for TSA pre-check. “But,” she said, “there are about 7.2 million people who have a known traveler number who would routinely get pre-check on their boarding pass because of their affiliation with certain groups.”
Roth explained, “TSA has increased dramatically the use of pre-check over the last several years. It’s gone from really a test kind of case to a situation where between 40 and 50 percent of all the traveling public gets an expedited screening.” Between the TSA pre-check and other trusted traveler programs, Roth said, “you’re talking about a significant portion of the flying public that is truly unknown to TSA and goes through expedited screening.”
“TSA is handing out pre-check status like Halloween candy in an effort to expedite passengers as quickly as possible despite self-admitted security gaps that are being created by the process,” Roering testified earlier, during her opening statement.
Chairman Johnson’s full written opening statement can be found here.
The full hearing can be viewed here.