Bomb threat interrupts TSA whistleblower hearing testimony

A Senate hearing in the Dirksen Office Building ended abruptly after someone called in a bomb threat to U.S. Capitol Police. Reportedly, a bomb had been placed in the room next to the hearing room. When word came to evacuate the hearing room, members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs were listening to testimony from whistleblower Robert MacLean about TSA management failures that threatened aviation security. Sen. Ron Johnson, who chaired the hearing, later said the threat was determined to be false.

The subject of the hearing was a leaked report disclosed last week in the news media. The report claimed TSA airport screeners failed to detect simulated security threats—including fake bombs—in 67 out of 70 attempts made by undercover investigators, called “Red Teams.”

Hearing witnesses included MacLean, the TSA Air Marshal who successfully appealed his dismissal to the U.S. Supreme Court; Assistant Federal Security Director Rebecca (Becky) Roering, also a whistleblower; John Roth, Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security; and Jennifer Grover, Director of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Roth thanked the whistleblowers and acknowledged their “crucial role in keeping our department efficient and accountable.” Regarding the leaked report, he said his office had conducted a series of “covert penetration tests” to see if they could access secure areas. He confirmed that vulnerabilities had been identified but said “details of those tests are classified.”

Rep. Ben Sasse questioned Roth about the “Red Teams” cited in media reports.

[On June 1, ABC News reported that Homeland Security Red Teams had posed as passengers to test airport security, and cited a 2013 hearing where “then-TSA administrator John Pistole, described the Red Team as “super terrorists,” who know precisely which weaknesses to exploit.”]

Roth told the Committee the Inspector General’s office did not have “Red Teams.” He said OIG auditors–accountants–who had no specialized training conducted the tests.

Sasse: Do you have any discomfort with a communication strategy of the Department that appears to be echoing these media testimonies? I will quote one from Secretary Johnson last week. “Red Team testing at the aviation security network has been a part of the TSA mission for 13 years. There are indeed Red Teams at the DHS.” You’re not going to, in a non-classified setting, clarify the nature of your investigation that was leaked; but I think that we’ve heard you clearly state that your employees are mostly auditors?

Roth: That’s correct.

A preliminary investigation was underway, Roth told the Committee, to determine the source of the leak of classified information.

“Are all of your investigations ultimately briefed to the leadership of the DHS?” asked Sasse. “Yes,” responded Roth.  He said the IG office had identified and investigated security vulnerabilities but TSA had declined to accept their recommendations.

Sasse: “Do you think its possible that TSA could really have not understood how grave their problem was before last week’s leaked report?”

Roth:  “It’s something that we think about all the time. Do they truly understand the nature of the risks that they face? Candidly, I worry about that.”

Becky Roering’s testimony addressed vulnerabilities and morale issues at the agency. “TSA has hired into leadership positions a number of former airline executives and others who place more emphasis on customer service then security,” said the whistleblower. A 2014 employee survey documented “a culture of fear and distrust” that impacts morale, she said.

Roering said expansion of the TSA Pre-Check program was problematic. “TSA is handing out Pre-Check status like Halloween Candy in an effort to expedite passengers as quickly as possible.”  IG Roth said later that 40-50% of the traveling public receive expedited screening.

Roering expressed concern about inadequate screening of airport employees with access to aircraft, noting that some of the employees later traveled to Syria to fight for the terrorist group ISIS.

Robert MacLean testified that dozens of TSA Federal Air Marshals had expressed concerns to him about aviation security threats, especially improvised explosive devices or bombs. He offered the committee suggestions for improving  airport security; for example, proposing the elimination of charges for Pre-Check, and deputizing passengers in advance. He urged faster processing of whistleblower cases, noting that “Federal employees are the only workers in the U.S. who don’t have access to jury trials.”

“All federal employees are reluctant to report money wasted and dangerous security lapses because they do not want to gamble with their careers before the Merit Systems Protection Board, the tiny underfunded agency that rules on whistleblower reprisal claims,” MacLean said.

Speaking for the GAO, Jennifer Grover said the office had reported weaknesses in TSA’s screening systems over many years “raising questions whether TSA is falling short in the ability to ensure aviation security.”

TSA’s acting administrator, Melvin Carraway, has been reassigned.

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RESOURCES:

Testimony of Jennifer Grover (GAO)

Testimony of Robert MacLean (TSA)

Testimony of Rebecca Roering (TSA)

Testimony of John Roth (DHS)

June 1 press release by Jeh Johnson, Secretary, DHS, on the Inspector General Findings on TSA Security Screening

OIG report, “TSA Can Improve Aviation Worker Vetting” (redacted), June 4

TSA Pre-Check website

Director of nation’s airport security reassigned, Politico, June 1

Homeland Security looks for leaker of report on airport-checkpoint failures,” Washington Post, June 9

White House rooms, TSA hearing evacuated,” ABC17, June 9

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