Congressman calls oversight of airport screening 'a waste of money'

WASHINGTON -- A government program to find gaps in airport screening is "a waste of money" because it doesn't follow up on why screeners failed to spot guns, knives and bombs on undercover agents, the head of the House Homeland Security Committee says.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report obtained by USA TODAY says Transportation Security Administration inspectors posing as passengers do not record why individual screeners failed to spot weapons. The TSA ran 20,000 covert tests at the USA's 450 commercial airports from 2002 to 2007, and the results ought to be used to improve screening, the report says.

The TSA disputed the report and said it has adopted many new screening practices and technologies to close holes revealed by testing.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., plans a hearing next month to press the TSA on making better use of covert tests.

"You have a system that's supposed to strengthen airport security, but you don't use the results of the tests to do exactly what you're doing the tests for," Thompson said. "It's obviously a waste of money."

Results of the covert tests are classified, but recent reports made public have alarmed lawmakers. A November GAO report said investigators repeatedly smuggled liquid explosives and detonators past airport checkpoints in 2006. An internal TSA report said screeners in Los Angeles and Chicago airports missed fake bombs on agents in more than 60% of tests in 2006.

TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said the tests have prompted new technologies, such as the installation of machines that peer under passengers' clothing to spot weapons that metal detectors might miss.

The TSA has also deployed hundreds of new X-ray machines that are better at spotting weapons in carry-on bags.

"Certainly we have used what we've learned over the years to improve security," Howe said.

The GAO said the TSA did not list reasons for test failures in an agency database. "The agency is not fully using the results of these tests" to close security holes, the GAO said.

Howe said that inspectors convey the reasons for test failures and successes in other ways, such as meetings, and that they have recently started adding the information to the database.

Don Thomas, a screener at Orlando International Airport and leader of a TSA union, said he's seen covert tests lead to screening changes, such as more thorough passenger pat-downs. "The covert tests are great," Thomas said. "They make sure you don't get too complacent."