Federal Times Blogs

Airport asks for private screeners

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The Orlando Sanford International Airport is reattempting to opt out of using Transportation Security Administration employees for screening under new rules that should make it easier for airports to contract the work.

A law enacted last month requires TSA to approve applications from airports that want to contract their passenger screening and security services if contractors can do the job as good or better than federal screeners without affecting costs. TSA has to provide feedback on the basis for any decision, including how denied applications could be improved. 

Four Montana airports and the Springfield Branson National Airport in Missouri applied for the  Screening Partnership Program (SPP) but were all denied last January. The Orlando Sanford International Airport applied for the program a few years ago but was denied, according to the Orlando Sun Sentinel

Currently, 16 airports including San Francisco International and Kansas City International use contractors to screen passengers. The bill would allow any of the nation’s 450 airports that use federal screeners to switch to contractors.

“Airport operators have expressed tremendous interest in the SPP and that expansion beyond the small fraction of U.S. airports that currently participate in the SPP will allow TSA to focus on security and oversight activities,” Republican Reps. John Mica, Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz said in a March 13 letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole.

Pistole stopped approving requests from airports to replace federal screeners with private screeners last year. Pistole told lawmakers at a recent House hearing that he did not see any “clear and substantial advantage” to expanding the program when he became TSA administrator in 2010.

But lawmakers argued that ”clear and substantial” was a standard added by the administrator.

The House members asked Pistole to provide a timetable for transitioning to the new law, which requires him to reassess airport applications denied last year according to the new review process and standards.

Security organization honors feds and contractors

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Redacting sensitive information in agency documents used to be a 15-step process at the Transportation Security Administration.

That was until a poorly redacted document was posted online in 2009. The incident prompted Emma Garrison-Alexander, TSA’s assistant administrator for information technology, to create standard document redaction tools and procedures agencywide. The feature is now an automated tool also available to private users of Adobe Acrobat Professional software.

“We have to ensure that we’re securing data and networks,” Garrison-Alexander said after being honored at ISC2′s Government Information Security Leadership Awards.

Garrison-Alexander was among several federal employees and contractors honored last week. Read more about other winners here.


TSA disciplines screener who instructed passenger to “Get her freak on”

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The Transportation Security Administration has initiated disciplinary action against an employee who told a female passenger to “Get her freak on” in a handwritten note placed inside her bag.

The passenger tweeted a picture of the note – which was written on a “Notice of Inspection” form that TSA places inside checked bags that are going to be searched. The employee has been removed from screening duty and is awaiting further disciplinary action.

According to the TSA blog:

“The handwritten note was highly inappropriate and unprofessional, and TSA has zero tolerance for this type of behavior. Agency officials have also reached out to the passenger to personally apologize for this unfortunate incident.”

(Hat tip to TPM for its original post and followup)

TSA checks for Afro explosives

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An Atlanta TV station recently reported a passenger going through Hartsfield- Jackson International Airport was subject to a TSA “hair pat-down”.

The woman had already gone through security when TSA agents tracked her down and asked to search her hair for explosives. She said no, but was then told she wouldn’t be able to board her flight without a “hair pat-down”. The woman has a massive fro and is quite a character, but a terrorist, I think not.  Watch the full report below.


Even Rummy can’t get past the TSA

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The former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld got hung up in Chicago O’Hare International Airport yesterday afternoon.

Rumsfled was stopped by TSA agents and patted down after setting off the metal detector. The 13th and 21st Secretary of Defense was reported as being a good sport by TMZ, they even have pictures to prove it!  The former SECDEF even tweeted about his pat down:

It takes those of us with two titanium hips and a titanium shoulder a bit longer to get through TSA… http://t.co/qUoW9FE
Donald Rumsfeld

Rumsfeld was in hometown of Chicago attending a Heritage Foundation Panel & Luncheon.

Harding on collective bargaining: Noncommittal

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Not much news out of this morning’s confirmation hearing for Gen. Robert Harding, President Obama’s second nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, asked him whether he’d commit to pursuing collective bargaining rights for TSA employees. Harding said he hadn’t reached a decision, and said he would talk with “TSA employees and stakeholders” before deciding whether to press the issue.

Obama’s first nominee, Erroll Southers, took a similar stance during his confirmation hearing in November, saying only that he would study the issue. But that noncommittal stance was enough to earn him a hold from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; Southers eventually withdrew his nomination.

Too early to tell whether the same will happen to Harding, who has another confirmation hearing tomorrow before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs commitee.

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More bargaining over TSA collective bargaining

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Seems the American Federation of Government Employees wants to win the right to represent the TSA’s screening workforce: The union filed a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority calling for a TSA-wide election on the subject. That would be a substantial step towards collective bargaining rights for TSA employees.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Student sues government over TSA, FBI actions

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A Pennsylvania college student sued the federal government Wednesday, saying that TSA and FBI officials detained him at an airport because he was carrying a set of English-Arabic flashcards, reports The Washington Post.

Nicholas George, 22, of Montgomery County, Pa., is a senior majoring in physics and Middle Eastern studies at California’s Pomona College. In his lawsuit, he argues that he was detained for five hours in August at the Philadelphia airport because three Transportation Security Administration officers, two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and two Philadelphia police officers were suspicious of his flashcards and semester studying abroad in the Middle East. George’s lawsuit states that the detainment was a violation of his constitutional rights to free speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

The Post quotes an anonymous source who said the questioning of George was based on officers’ observations of George’s behavior:

A federal official familiar with the matter, discussing the case on the condition of anonymity, said that TSA officers observed “anomalous” behavior by George before he entered the checkpoint. The official said his “erratic” conduct escalated upon screening and, along with other unspecified factors, that led officers to call police to investigate further.

Under questioning, George said he was not a “terrorist, a communist, a Muslim or a member of any campus ‘pro-Islamic group,’” at which point FBI agents told him he was not a threat and let him go.

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Contractors dream of TSA dollars

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The Christmas Day underpants bomber has spurred contractors to create security devices they hope may be deployed in airports across the country, reports the Los Angeles Times today.

Security companies are scrambling to develop devices to sniff for explosives, screen shoes and analyze liquids in bottles. They’re all hoping for a piece of the Transportation Security Administration’s $1 billion in stimulus funding: $700 million to improve baggage screening and $300 million for detection of explosives on passengers.

And it’s not just contractors striving to create new machines. The Homeland Security Department’s science and technology directorate’s New Jersey laboratory tests and develops new technologies that may find their way to your airport, the article reports. Scientists are working on a device that can smell explosives, much like bomb-sniffing dogs.

Said spokesman John Verrico:

There are a lot of things we are looking at that are not ready for prime time. A lot of it may not even work.”


Erroll Southers withdraws his nomination

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(Updated below) Erroll Southers, President Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, has withdrawn his nomination, according to the White House.

Southers was nominated in September, but his nomination has been stalled in the Senate for months. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., placed a hold on Southers’ nomination; DeMint was worried that Southers would allow TSA employees to join labor unions.

We’ll have more on this, on the blog and the homepage, throughout the day.

Update, 11:10 a.m.: Responses are starting to trickle in from union leaders. Here’s Colleen Kelley, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union:

I am disappointed with the withdrawal of Erroll Southers to be administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It was clear from the beginning that Southers was extremely well-qualified for this critical homeland security post. Two Senate committees agreed and he had more than enough bipartisan support to overcome politically-motivated delays to his confirmation.

TSA has a number of issues that continue to contribute to its high attrition rate and low workforce morale. Many of these issues, such as insufficient training, low pay, inconsistencies in workplace policies and injury rates, will only be successfully addressed with a permanent administrator. Unless and until such leadership is in position, TSA will continue to fall far short of its clear goal of becoming a world-class law enforcement agency.

Kelley said she spoke with Southers this morning, and that she was “disappointed… politics drove him out.”

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