National Security

Johnson Touts Improvements at TSA, But Problems Persist

New audit shows feds struggle to measure effectiveness of security reforms

Jeh Johnson
Jeh Johnson / AP

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday that DHS has reduced airport wait times "without compromising security," but a government report released earlier in the day revealed ongoing vulnerabilities that continue to put travelers at risk.

Johnson, who spoke to the press at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., ticked off a series of changes implemented at the Transportation Security Administration over the past year to which he attributed better efficiency at airport checkpoints and enhanced security.

Average wait times for over 98 percent of airline passengers now hover at 30 minutes or less and TSA’s PreCheck program, which expedites security checks for enrolled travelers, has more than doubled over the past year to 3.5 million members, Johnson said.

He also pointed to a funding shift from Congress that enabled TSA to hire over 1,300 new screeners while converting over 1,800 part-time officers to full-time positions. Johnson expressed confidence that lawmakers would approve TSA budget requests during appropriations discussions at the end of September and emphasized the need for lawmakers to make a "long-term investment" in the agency to build up a depleted workforce.

Still, he said, "this is hardly mission accomplished."

"Worldwide, there is still a threat environment that we have to pay attention to around aviation security," Johnson said. "There is much more to do."

Last year, a DHS inspector general report released the results of a covert investigation where department staff brought mock explosives and weapons through airport checkpoints. TSA screeners failed to detect the banned items in more than 95 percent of cases at dozens of U.S. airports.

In response to the findings, Johnson ordered TSA to implement a new training program in October 2015 that mandated retraining for the entire workforce.

A new Government Accountability Office report issued Wednesday morning disclosed that TSA is still not properly assessing the effectiveness of those exercises.

The 52-page report found that TSA is not collecting complete, nationwide data during its assessments, including checks of X-ray machine operators placed at security checkpoints. GAO auditors said this shortcoming could limit the reliability of those machines and the capacity of officers to identify banned items before passengers board their flights.

TSA acting administrator Peter Neffenger said Wednesday the report’s conclusions "didn’t come as a surprise," but noted that some of the findings regarded past practices that have since been updated.

"These are important conclusions because they validate what we internally found in our own assessments this past year," Neffenger told reporters at Reagan airport.

"They point out to us areas where we need to improve, and they’re assuring us the kinds of things we’re doing are exactly what we should be doing," he added.

DHS is expected to deploy another round of covert tests this year to assess the agency’s efforts at improvement.