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In the midst of all the news stories about the turmoil in the Middle East and, of late, the tragic earthquake and subsequent tsunami that has devastated parts of Japan, it is easy to see why Congressman John Mica’s allegations about TSA’s cost comparison of federal and private airport screeners got lost in the mix. It is a story that deserves a second, and perhaps a third, look.
Admittedly, Rep. Mica may have a well-deserved reputation for hyperbole, but this appears to be a case where Mica may have uncovered a “story behind the story.” Mica used a recently updated GAO report to claim that TSA has “cooked the books” (his words) when it comes to comparing the costs of private security screeners under the Screening Partnership Program – a program that TSA Administrator John Pistole recently declared would not be expanded beyond the current airports in the program – a decision that the American Federation of Government Employees Union promptly took credit for, thereby giving the immediate impression that the decision was not much more than an effort to placate an important Obama Administration ally.
Now, I believe that TSA Administrator Pistole is a “stand up” guy – one who is not swayed by gusts of political winds. But the TSA’s response to the GAO report Rep. Mica highlighted last week does not inspire a lot of confidence. At a time when the public still questions TSA’s explanations about the propriety of “enhanced security procedures,” TSA’s GAO response about SPP metrics has created the impression that cost and performance are secondary concerns when it comes to making decisions about passenger screening.
Here’s what raises the question. GAO’s report says: “In addition, TSA reported that it does not plan to rely solely on its cost and performance study for future management decisions related to the SPP.”
Well, if TSA isn’t going to rely “solely” upon cost and performance, then what IS it going to rely upon? Politics? Personality? Intuition? All are possibilities since TSA has not indicated what criteria it will use, only what it won’t use “solely.” To me, this does not inspire the level of trust that the American public expects, and it is far from the level of transparency the Obama Administration promised.
Rep. Mica and others are right to question the TSA decision to put the brakes on the use of well-trained, highly competent private screeners at commercial airports. The federal government has every right to set standards and audit compliance with those standards when federal interests are involved. But there is absolutely nothing “inherently governmental” in the provision of screening services, in my opinion, even when the activity involves the screening of passengers and cargo getting onto commercial aircraft.
No doubt that Rep. Mica and his congressional colleagues will have multiple opportunities to question Administrator Pistole about this issue (especially given the burdensome, overlapping jurisdiction congressional oversight committees have over DHS agencies.) The first opportunity may occur on Tuesday, March 15, when Administrator Pistole is scheduled to testify before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee on the FY12 budget request. If Members are not too wrapped up in parochial interests, they should ask Pistole one or more of the following questions:
• If the Security Partnership Program is working to TSA’s satisfaction at 16 airports today, what factors led you to conclude that it should not be extended to other commercial airports?
• What did TSA mean when it told GAO that factors other than cost and performance will be used to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the SPP?
• What role, if any, did advocacy efforts by the AFGE play in your decision to put the SPP program “on ice,” as AFGE claims in its recent newsletter?
Even if these questions are not asked, I hope that Administrator Pistole will take each and every opportunity to explain his SPP decision and the strange “cost and performance” language in the GAO report. The American public is waiting on the transparency that this Administration has promised.
This piece was originally published in Security Debrief.