WASHINGTON (CN) - With a new report blasting airport-screening failures, Congress heard promises Tuesday about the Transportation Security Administration's commitment to reform.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform called on Peter Neffenger, who took over as head of the TSA in June, to respond to scathing reports by the Government Accountability Office and the Office of the Inspector General that found "universal and disappointing" holes in the TSA screening process.
"There is no fixing it," Neffenger told the committee during the nearly three-hour hearing. "There is addressing the challenges, learning from what you've addressed, testing yourself, learning from those tests and continuous improvement as you go forward."
By posing as normal passengers carrying banned items through airport security, auditors within the Inspector General's Office, a division of Homeland Security, found gaps in the TSA's screening process.
"The failures included failures in the technology, failures in TSA procedures, and human error," Inspector General John Roth's written statement to the committee says. "We found layers of security simply missing."
Jennifer Grover, director of Homeland Security and Justice for the Government Accountability Office, told the committee that the TSA has also struggled to properly implement and utilize technology in airport screening lines.
For example, the TSA tested full-body scanners in labs but not in real-world settings, meaning it failed to take into account the possibility of employees making mistakes on pat downs if the scanners found something, Grover said.
Neffenger said the TSA has retrained its entire front-line staff, including teaching screeners how their machines work, and that each employee undergoes a yearly certification test to ensure they know how to operate screening machines. He also insisted the agency is continuing to consider new ways to combat threats, such as using canine units to search for things humans might miss.
"The day you think you get the screening process, the security process, right is the day you will be defeated," Neffenger said.
Committee members at the hearing primarily focused their questioning on the agency's "culture," as well as on specific programs the agency has undertaken, such as the PreCheck initiative that allows frequent fliers to go through expedited screening in exchange for a fee and submitting to a background check.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, seemed stunned when Neffenger told him a PreCheck member who attempts to bring a loaded gun onto a plane loses PreCheck privileges for 90 days.
"So you try to bring a gun on a plane, whether it's an accident or not, and just for 90 days you just don't get PreChecked?" Chaffetz asked. "That's the penalty?"
But Neffenger insisted he was committed to reforming the program, which is intended to let the agency focus on people who might be higher security risks. The administrator specifically touted his decision to end a program that randomly assigned travelers into an expedited screening line without the background that the full PreCheck program requires.
As to his agency's culture, Neffenger told the committee he was looking to correct "systemic" issues within the TSA and hoped to improve morale by reminding TSA employees why they chose to join the agency in the first place.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., wasn't sure this would solve the problem. He suggested the TSA should "get out of the personnel business" to cut overhead at the agency and let it fully focus on closing security gaps.
Grover said the agency's culture problem comes from a shift in the agency's role in preventing attacks.
"So TSA was originally stood up in a culture of crisis where they had to be responsive and they had to be responsive fast," Grover said. "But at this point it is time to transition to a culture of accountability for more effectiveness."
Throughout the hearing Neffenger acknowledged the problem of morale and culture within the agency, but insisted a commitment to change throughout the agency, not just at the top, should help solve the TSA's problems.
"This isn't about me as an individual, it's not about making myself look good or anyone between me and that person," Neffenger said. "It's about everyone of us remembering that we serve a higher order here, and we say we engage in a higher order. That is surprisingly important for a front-line workforce to hear. I learned that in my years in the Coast Guard. It may seem simple, but that is the most powerful thing you can tell somebody: what you do is important, and it's so important that I'm going to spend every waking moment paying attention to getting that done."
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., promised more hearings in the future on the TSA and encouraged Neffenger to attempt to create an organization that is committed to being exceptional.
"You should get used to seeing us on a regular basis," Cummings told Neffenger during the hearing.
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