Acting TSA Chief Gives Agency Update to Senate Committee

Acting TSA Chief Gives Agency Update to Senate Committee

September 13, 2019  | Jeff Davis

The acting head of the Transportation Security Administration gave a status update on that agency’s activities to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on September 11 (the anniversary of the incident that prompted TSA’s hasty creation). Video of the hearing can be viewed here.

The TSA has a Senate-confirmed Administrator, David Pekoske, but this being the Trump Administration, Pekoske is currently occupied in another capacity – the Secretary and Deputy Secretary positions at the Department of Homeland Security are currently vacant, so Kevin McAleenan, the Senate-confirmed Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, is Acting Secretary, and TSA head Pekoski is Acting Deputy Secretary.

Accordingly, Patricia Cogswell, the Acting Deputy Administrator of TSA, testified before the Senate panel. Her written testimony said “Although Administrator Pekoske is currently dual-hatted, continuing to serve as the Administrator while also serving as the Department of Homeland Security’s Acting Deputy Secretary, TSA, through its strong leadership corps and sound organizational structure, continues to implement the TSA Modernization Act and execute the 2018-2026 TSA Strategy and the Administrator’s Intent that were put in place prior to him assuming that role.”

Her testimony also gave some statistical updates – TSA screens an average of 2.8 million passengers, 1.4 million checked bags, and 5.1 million carry-on bags each day, and 2019 was the busiest summer season on record (they screened more than 262 million air passengers between Memorial Day and Labor Day). TSA has also increased its staffing by 2,100 more FTEs than last year.

The TSA Modernization Act of 2018 was enacted as Division K of Public Law 115-254 on October 5, 2018. (Ed. Note: The Office of the Federal Register still hasn’t published the public law version of this act, and it’s now been over 11 months – this link is to the enrolled bill version.) So there are a variety of deadlines that were given to TSA in terms of one year after enactment of the act, a deadline which is fast approaching.

During the question and answer period, committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) began by asking about TSA”s Screening Partnership Program, which allows airports to revert to the pre-TSA system of providing their own security screening (overseen by TSA). At present, according to the TSA website, 22 airports participate in the SPP – San Francisco, and then 21 other airports whose combined total passenger load does not add up to half of SFO’s.

Current SPP Airports
CY 2018
SPP Airport Enplanements Rank
San Francisco International 27.8 million 7
Kansas City International 5.8 million 41
Orland Sanford 1.5 million 78
Greater Rochester 1.3 million 84
Punta Gorda 787 thousand 104
Sarasota-Bradenton 686 thousand 107
Bozeman Yellowstone 672 thousand 109
Atlantic City 569 thousand 118
Sioux Falls 530 thousand 122
All others under 500 thousand per year

Cogswell told Wicker that they have awarded SPP contracts with three new airports this year, a fourth is due by September 30, and more are due in early 2020.

Wicker then asked about compliance with REAL ID Act deadlines, and she said that 50 of 56 ID-issuing jurisdictions are now compliant, and the remaining six will be in compliant by the end of 2020.

Wicker also asked about the timeline for insallation of computerized tomography (CT) scanners which will, when operational, allow carry-on bags to be screened without having to remove laptop computers and “lotions and potions” (screener slang for small bottles of liquids).

In response to this (and to a later follow-up from Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV), Cogswell replied that the FY 2019 appropriations act provided funding to buy 300 of the machines, and the purchase has been made (a protest bid from another vendor caused a 90-day delay that has now been cleared up). TSA has decided which airports at which to install this first round of machines, and installation should begin this fall. Scanning electronics while still in the bag is the easy part, according to Cogswell – programming an algorithm for scanning bottles of liquids is proving more difficult. Eventually, the next generation of CT machines will ideally have an internal diversion mechanism – a bag spotted as suspicious by the computer will automatically be diverted to a different conveyor belt, while still inside the machine, for a manual inspection later.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the ranking minority member of the committee, had a line of questioning that was echoed by other Democrats throughout the hearing – wanting to know details about the temporary transfer of TSA personnel to the US-Mexico border. Cogswell claimed that the transfers had not materially affected TSA readiness.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) brought up a December 2018 GAO report on pipeline security that had ten recommendations for TSA, and Cogswell said that TSA was making “strong progress” towards meeting all ten.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and later, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) both brought up S. 472, a bill they sponsored that would undo section 601 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, which increased TSA’s per-passenger aviation security fee but used the increase for deficit reduction, not for offsetting the TSA’s annual appropriation. (The amount put into general revenues will be $1.4 billion in 2020 under current law.)

Cogswell said that the Trump Administration had no official position on the bill, but she shared Blumenthal’s interest in a continual, consistent funding source for TSA.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) asked about facial recognition software and privacy rights. Cogswell explained that TSA is working on two pilot programs in this area. One is in cooperation with CBP and involves any passenger with a U.S. passport whose passport photo is stored electronically by CBP having that e-photo shown on a screen visible to the TSA officer when the passenger is presenting their ID, so the officer can compare the passport file photo with the person and with the photo on the physical ID being presented. The other pilot program, at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, electronically compares the flier’s face with the face on their ID.

In both instances, Cogswell said that the information is only retained long enough to perform the match (or mis-match) and is then erased, prompting Lee to make a fairly clever “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” joke at an otherwise dry hearing. Later. Sen. Markey pressed Cogswell to promise that TSA would not share biometric info, which she did.

Former committee chairman John Thune (R-SD) pressed Cogswell on the TSA Pre program and the status of TSA hiring a second vendor to open more places for people to apply to join the program. Cogswell responded that they were working hard to get a second vendor but are also testing a pilot program where people can sign up on some kind of computer tablet at the airport gate (apparently the tablet will be able to scan fingerprints).

Sen. Capito asked about TSA personnel turnover, which Cogswell said is running at about 17 percent, which she said the Labor Department says is typical for a federal agency in that salary range.

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