Portman Presses TSA Nominee on Ensuring Safe Air Travel, Need to Comply with Congressional Oversight

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, pressed David Pekoske, the nominee to serve as the Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on the measures he is taking to ensure the safety of air travel in the United States after he admitted that TSA knowingly allows individuals on the terrorist watch list to fly commercially.   

In addition, Portman called on Mr. Pekoske to clarify TSA’s repeated refusal to provide information to the Committee about draft directives to Congress, despite having shared copies of the draft directives to industry stakeholders. Portman pointed out that if the draft directives have already been shared externally, they should be shared with the Committee. 

Portman also highlighted how morale amongst TSA employees is low and has spanned multiple administrations. He asked Pekoske about his plan, if confirmed, to improve morale amongst hardworking TSA employees. 

A transcript of his questioning can be found below and a video can be found here. 

Portman: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Pekoske, I want to ask you first about terrorism and a TSA success, which was in possibly identifying a known terrorist, a Colombian national named Isnardo Garcia-Amado, who was attempting to board a plane in Florida. Was this man listed on the no-fly list?” 

David Pekoske, nominee to be Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “No, sir, he was not listed on the no-fly list. This occurred back in April, about four days after he was encountered by the Border Patrol at Yuma, Arizona. And when he showed up at the TSA checkpoint, given the information that he provided to the carrier when he purchased his ticket, we knew that we needed to do some additional identity verification work with this traveler, and then if that warranted some additional enhanced screening, work with him as well. And that’s what we did.” 

Portman: Was he on the terrorist screening database?” 

Mr. Pekoske: “I can’t confirm whether any passenger in general, we just don’t confirm whether passengers are on the terrorist screening database. What I can say is that the information this passenger provided indicated to us that we needed to provide enhanced screening and that we also needed to get further information on his identity. Furthermore, we thought it was necessary that we provide Federal Air Marshals on the flight that he was on.” 

Portman: Okay. Do you allow some names on the terrorist screening database to fly?” 

Mr. Pekoske: “Yes, sir.” 

Portman: Why would you allow that?” 

Mr. Pekoske: “Because we don’t think that those passengers present such an immediate risk as to be catastrophic to an airplane in flight. But we have concerns, and we feel that we can mitigate those concerns through our screening process, and where appropriate, through the presence of Federal Air Marshals on the flights. We also, as part of that process, work with the FBI’s Terror Screening Center, to coordinate that information across the interagency so all agencies that have an interest are advised of that passenger’s travel.” 

Portman: “I’d like to follow up on that. Maybe it’s better in a classified setting, but it seems to me if someone’s on the terrorist screening database, rather than having to bring air marshals in to be able to fly with that person, that person should not be permitted on a US carrier, or at least on a US flight.” 

Mr. Pekoske: “Yes, sir, I understand. I’m very happy to brief you in the appropriate setting, but this is a very carefully developed and coordinated and governed risk management process that we’ve used for years. But happy to brief you on it.” 

Portman: “Yeah. So you’re not going to tell me whether Mr. Garcia-Amado was on that list, but it sounds like you treated him as though he was.” 

Mr. Pekoske: “Yes, sir. We treated him with the risk that we felt he presented, and we want to mitigate that risk.” 

Portman: “Is he continuing to fly?”

Mr. Pekoske: “I don’t know whether he has attempted to fly, but he would be permitted to fly.” 

Portman: “Is he here legally?” 

Mr. Pekoske: “I don’t know the answer to that question, sir. That would be a Customs and Border Protection question.” 

Portman: “You didn’t find that out in the process of the screening?”

Mr. Pekoske: “Well, he was admitted into the country by the Border Patrol. He was likely aware of immigration proceedings.” 

Portman: “Right so are a couple of hundred thousand people a month. It doesn’t mean they’re here lawfully.” 

Mr. Pekoske: “Right, but he was admitted in and he was most likely awaiting immigration proceedings.” 

Portman: “Can you explain to this Committee why you can share draft copies of these directives we talked about earlier? These are the draft directives you provided to industry with regard to security for the pipeline industry. Can you explain why you would provide these draft copies to the private sector and not to the Congressional oversight committees?” 

Mr. Pekoske: “Yes, sir. We want to collaborate with our oversight committees and their staff as greatly as we can, and we benefit significantly from that process. We have offered, and I believe we have briefed on the second security directive that you referenced in your opening statement of what is contained in that directive.” 

Portman: “Let me just be clear on that. Here’s a letter from October of last year where we asked the Inspector General to get involved in this because we were not getting the information. And I know they’re doing an IG investigation now to try to figure out what’s appropriate in audit of your processes. So we’ve been asking for this for a long time. And I see your staff nodding their head when you say, we briefed last week and you briefed only staff and you did it in camera, meaning you wouldn’t leave the documents for the rest of us to see, including the members of the Committee. And you did it last week, I assume, because you’re coming in here today, which we appreciate you being here, but again, Senator Peters and I have a history of treating these documents with their appropriate level of sensitivity. In this case, there may be reasons for us to have these documents provided to us in a classified setting. We understand that, but we’d certainly like to see them. We like to know what you’re directing these folks to do. We don’t want another Colonial Pipeline. And our job is to try to do our oversight to avoid that. We’re drafting legislation to deal with it and not to know what the directives are, what you’re telling the pipelines, it makes our job very hard. And I think it makes your job harder, too. So I would ask you today to share those with us. You say they are in internal deliberations. Is that the reason you haven’t shared them?” 

Mr. Pekoske: “So we’re about to reissue those. I intend to sign that directive this afternoon when I get back to my office. And the reason why the briefs were offered last week was because it was in final form. That way you could see the net result process of our working with the industry and with our other federal partners in developing.” 

Portman: Why haven’t you shared those with us?” 

Mr. Pekoske: “We will, sir. You will get a copy this afternoon.” 

Portman: Okay. Well, thank you. I appreciate that. The federal courts have been very clear about that. When the government voluntarily shares with a non-federal party, they waive any claim that the information is exempt from disclosure. And that’s been true. I mentioned we’ve been at this for a long time. This goes back to October of last year. So we appreciate you sharing it with us. And again, I thank you for your willingness to step up and serve. Again, you get a tough job because it’s a difficult task for TSA, and your pay grades are not that of other federal law enforcement officials. I think the TSA morale problem is real. Again, I have a lot of discussions with TSA individuals and have gotten to know some of them through the years. This problem has spanned administrations and spanned secretaries. So I’m not putting the onus on this administration. You’ve been in both the Trump administration, now the Biden administration. If confirmed, what do you believe is your role in improving morale at TSA, and what plans do you have to do things differently based on your experience over the past five years?” 

Mr. Pekoske: “Yes, sir. My role is a central role as a leader of the agency. And part of what I am trying to do, and this takes some time, is to, one, be very responsive to the feedback we’re getting from our frontline workforce and the workforce across the agency. As you know, we do the Federal Employee Viewpoint survey every year. We encourage, in fact, it closes, I believe, tomorrow. And we’ve actively encouraged people and given them time to fill out those survey results. And then I think we demonstrate very well to our employees that we pay attention to the input that we receive and we look at individual location differences so that we can drill in and figure out what’s going on to address the source of dissatisfaction. I think pay is a big part of it, but it’s not the only part. And part of it is to make sure that people view that they have opportunity to grow in TSA and to do all the great things that we do in the security checkpoint and beyond.” 

Portman: “Okay, my time has expired. We look forward to the directive, the draft directive, and thank you for your service.” 

Mr. Pekoske: “Thank you, sir.”