(CNSNews.com) – Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, admonished Transportation Security Administration Administrator Peter Neffenger for not delivering to the committee the results of a report testing the vulnerability of the nation’s airports.
The committee hearing centered on efforts to prevent attacks on transportation infrastructure in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attack on March 22. Neffenger was in Brussels when terrorist attacks on the airport and subway system killed at least 26 people last month. He was actually at the airport the day of the bombings, arriving as the bombs exploded.
“As you noted Mr. Chairman, I was at the Brussels airport the day of the bombings. I was there for meetings with a number of my European counterparts. We arrived right as the bombs detonated, and I will tell you being there on that day, seeing the devastation, seeing the chaos of the airport environment and the evil behind it was a stark reminder of the important work that we do at TSA everyday to protect travelers,” he testified during his opening statement.
In 2014, a long-running gun-smuggling operation was uncovered at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Neffenger became TSA administrator after the operation was uncovered.
The operation involved more than 100 guns and involved a Delta baggage handler and a former employee who allegedly smuggled guns 20 times through the airport and at times exchanged the guns in the men’s bathroom.
“The gun-running scheme showed tremendous vulnerability,” Nelson said. He added that Atlanta has since implemented security measures to address this vulnerability, and so have Miami and Orlando. “What about the rest of the 297 airports nationwide?” he asked.
Neffenger said he ordered “a detailed vulnerability assessment across the entire system” earlier this year. “The results of that assessment are coming in this month,” he said.
The purpose of the assessment, Neffenger said, was to answer the following questions: “First and foremost, what have you done? What’s the nature of your insider population? Who are your employers? What are you doing?”
“That’s the question. What’s the answer?” Nelson asked.
“And the answer is that there’s been a lot of movement in terms of reducing security access points across the system. There’s been a lot of movement to greatly enhance the oversight of that insider population - both by TSA as well as by the employers,” Neffenger replied.
“A lot of movement, such as?” Nelson asked.
“And what I’m going to have to provide to you is –in the report – is once we evaluate all of these that are in, then that’s going to drive us to add requirements into the airport security plans for each of those airports to take the best practices that we’re finding from Miami, from Orlando, from Atlanta, and to drive those into the other airports across the country. I was concerned that we hadn’t had a lot of specifics on that,” Neffenger said.
“Mr. Administrator, the best practices are obvious. You have to check the airport employees. So is your testimony today that nothing’s been done?” Nelson asked.
“No sir, that’s not my testimony. We’ve done quite a bit. We are checking—the TSA itself has increased the number of inspections of employees by five-fold just in the past five months, and we do that ourselves,” Neffenger responded.
“You don’t have enough resources. You gotta get the airports to do it,” Nelson said.
“And they are doing that, airport by airport,” the TSA administrator said.
“Then get us the report,” Nelson said.
“And that’s coming your way, sir, cause we’re evaluating—I wanted to give you good specifics from the vulnerability assessments that we conducted so that I could give you specific answers airport by airport to exactly the question you’re asking, and those are all due this week is the deadline for getting those in, and we’ll compile that report, and we’ll get it to the committee as soon as we have it,” Neffenger said.
“Why couldn’t that have been done in time to report to the committee since that was such an obvious question that you were going to be asked?” the senator asked.
“Well I think the answer I would have to that is that I didn’t have I felt adequate specifics to satisfy this committee on the specific measures taken, so that’s why we went back, and I ordered a specific vulnerability assessment airport by airport. It was done on a very short time frame,” Neffenger said.
“It was done in conjunction with the recommendations from the aviation security advisory committee, and it was done in a way that ensured that I could give very specific answers, and more importantly provide very specific direction with respect to the requirements that we’re going to put in place,” he added.
“That said, we have greatly enhanced the oversight, and airports have greatly enhanced their oversight already, so it’s not as if nothing’s been done. I want to know exactly what it has been so that we can ensure consistency across the entire system,” Neffenger said.
“You have a sterling reputation, but that’s an insufficient answer and a problem that has been begging now for two years, and the only person that’s going to get the airports off their duff to limit the access into their airports is going to be you and your administration. And I realize that you can say that you have a specific jurisdiction of requiring security checks of who’s going on the plane, but what about the stuff that may be going on the plane, which is getting at the same thing, and therefore, you gotta go to a different perimeter,” Nelson said.
Neffenger said the TSA has “greatly enhanced” oversight of cargo screening facilities and catering facilities.
“I’ll provide a specific outline of those for the record, but it’s oversight of the caterers, the catering facilities, the way in which they inspect the catering carts. It’s oversight of the cargo, the way in which that cargo’s inspected, the multiple steps at which we’re now inspected cargo that wasn’t done before, the amount of security perimeter checks that are being done that weren’t done before, the reduction in the security perimeter entrances into each of those airports that are covered by airport security plans,” Neffenger said.
“So a lot has been done,” he said. “What I was referring to was I wanted to give a very specific detail of that to you airport by airport, and I went back and asked for much more detail so that I could outline it specifically and then move that into the required security plans in an official and directed way.”
“I’ll just close, Mr. Chairman, by saying this: It’s pretty simple. You lessen the number of entry points like Atlanta had over 100 down to a handful, and you check the employees going through. You can’t do that just as TSA. You’ve got to get the airports to do that, and that’s the report that we want to know in our oversight capacity,” Nelson said.
“How many airports of the 300 following the lead of Miami, which did it 10 years ago, have done this to watch so that something like Egypt and the Russian airliner doesn’t happen here?” Nelson added.