TSA Chief Disputes ‘Thousands Standing Around’ Jab at Agency

Mica, Broun Call for TSA Reform
Representative John Mica, a Republican from Florida, left, and Representative Paul Broun, a Republican from Georgia, discuss the release of a congressional report calling for Transportation Security Administration reforms at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on Nov. 16, 2011. Photographer: Christopher Powers/Bloomberg

U.S. Representative John Mica, who helped write the law creating the Transportation Security Administration, calls it “a bloated bureaucracy.” TSA deserves the nickname “Thousands Standing Around,” Representative Paul Broun says.

The agency’s workforce grew 6 percent last year to a record 54,831 full-time equivalent positions, the fastest rate since at least 2005, according to budget documents. Administrator John Pistole requested another 3,570 positions for this fiscal year.

Congress created the TSA after the Sept. 11 attacks, giving it a virtual blank check to protect U.S. aviation from terrorists. Ten years later, the agency faces the competing demands of tighter budgets and labor-intensive mandates such as screening all passenger baggage and cargo. Congress hasn’t passed President Barack Obama’s proposal to increase fees on airline tickets to help pay more of TSA’s costs.

“Those who say that we’re inefficient or bloated -- I’d be glad to sit down and go through the books and say, ’OK, how would you staff this differently?’” Pistole said in an interview yesterday at Bloomberg’s Washington bureau.

Airports are “optimally staffed,” he said, while allowing that “there’s something to” the argument by Mica, a Florida Republican, and Broun, a Georgia Republican, that TSA’s administrative staff of 4,000 in the Washington area could be thinned.

Pistole’s Plan

Pistole, 55, said he’s frozen hiring for some administrative positions and wants an unspecified number of people in the Washington area to leave through early retirement. He said he’s combined positions in information technology and training and will eliminate six out of 12 high-level management positions.

Broun, in a letter today to Pistole, wrote that he would “gladly accept your offer to sit down and go through” the TSA’s records. The measures Pistole has taken to reduce administrative staff can’t compensate for the “massive growth” of the agency over 10 years, Broun wrote.

Some airports are “insufficiently staffed,” said Brian DeWyngaert, chief of staff at the American Federation of Government Employees, which won the right this year to bargain on behalf of the TSA’s workforce.

“In some airports, the workforce is stretched too thin, and there’s real anger and angst among employees,” said DeWyngaert, who said he couldn’t immediately provide names of understaffed airports.

Risk-Based Security

The TSA says it has 20 layers of security to protect airplanes, most of which require people. Risk-based security measures that Pistole favors should allow the agency to reduce staff in the long run, said Kip Hawley, TSA administrator from 2005 to 2009.

Pistole describes risk-based security as focusing attention and resources on travelers who appear suspicious or are unknown rather than putting everyone through the same checks. The TSA workforce dedicated to one such effort, behavior detection, has grown to 3,000 in the past five years.

Trained officers rove airports, watching passengers and interviewing them at random. In Boston and Detroit, they interview each passenger at certain security checkpoints, watching for signs of deception and routing questionable passengers to extra security such as swabbing carry-ons for explosives.

No Quick Shrinkage

Pistole this year began experimenting with separate security lines that enable pilots and certain pre-screened frequent fliers to pass through checkpoints at some airports without removing shoes or taking laptops and liquids out of carry-on bags. Through appropriations bills and legislation, Congress has since the TSA’s creation sought speedy screening of pilots and the development of a trusted traveler program.

“Logically, as fewer people need full screening, the TSA should require fewer employees, said Hawley, who’s now a security consultant in California.

Congress, rather than agency leaders, likely will drive any resulting staff reductions, he said in an interview.

‘‘It’s not a natural instinct in government to wake up and say ’I want to cut 20 percent of my workforce,’” Hawley said, citing an arbitrary number.

The TSA is using existing employees in trials of the risk-based programs, Greg Soule, an agency spokesman, said in an e-mail. It’s “too early” to know the number of employees that will be affected long-term, Pistole said.

‘Mission Creep’

The use of checked-baggage-scanning technology enabled the agency to shift some employees to become behavior-detection officers, Pistole said. Airports outside the U.S. are asking for a larger TSA presence, he said.

“Mission creep” may result as fewer TSA employees are needed at checkpoints, Jeffrey Price, an aviation security consultant based in Denver, said in an interview. Passengers may start seeing screeners checking carry-ons at gates or patrolling airport perimeters, he said.

“When was the last time we saw bureaucracy get smaller?” Price asked. “If you need fewer people, the business answer is to get rid of them. The bureaucratic answer if to find something else for them to do.”

Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee, said he wants the agency to become a regulatory body overseeing screeners employed by companies under contract.

“They need to get out of the personnel business,” Mica said in an interview. “They need to go back to becoming a security agency” by setting policies for contractors and conducting audits, he said.

What Congress Wants

Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said at a Nov. 9 hearing that more use of contract screeners, now at 16 U.S. airports, would help slim the workforce. “The overall philosophy that the government can do this better is not necessarily the right philosophy,” Blunt told Pistole, who this year froze expansion of the private-screener program.

There are conflicting estimates on the cost of using private employees. U.S. taxpayers could save $1 billion over five years if the 35 biggest airports used private screeners, Mica said in June. According to a TSA report to the Government Accountability Office, contract screeners cost at least 3 percent more. The TSA also can’t reassign or move contract employees to respond to changing needs as it can with its own workforce, Pistole said.

Screener Cap

Congress capped the number of federal screener positions from 2002 to 2009. The Republican-led House’s appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security this fiscal year would reinstitute a cap, at 46,000. The Senate’s version doesn’t include that imposition.

The agency had 52,269 full-time-equivalent positions devoted to aviation security last fiscal year. It’s unclear how many of those would fall under a congressional screener cap.

After an al-Qaeda operative tried to detonate an underwear bomb on a Christmas 2009 flight to Detroit, the U.S. accelerated plans to install full-body scanning machines at checkpoints. The TSA hired 5,000 screeners, or 3,000 full-time equivalents, to operate the machines, some of which require an employee to sit in a separate room and review revealing images of passengers’ bodies.

If passengers decide not to go through the scanners, they can opt to be patted down. The TSA must have male and female employees available at checkpoints to perform the pat-downs.

‘Not Sellable’

Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat on the appropriations committee, said he objects to staffing limits.

“Republicans have put arbitrary caps on the number of screeners and tried to limit funding, which would result in much longer lines for passengers and weaken the security of our system,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

While no successful terrorist attack using a plane has occurred since Sept. 11, elected officials would be reluctant to decrease the amount of security in airports, Jeffrey R. Sural, a former congressional liaison to the TSA now with Alston and Bird LLP in Washington, said in an interview.

“If the mandates were repealed, and the TSA had a pure risk-based strategy, it would not need as many people,” Sural said. “Politically, that’s still not sellable.”

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