TSA faces Capitol Hill pressure for new leadership, security measures

File: May 2011: A man is screened with a backscatter x-ray machine at a TSA security checkpoint at  Los Angeles International Airport.

File: May 2011: A man is screened with a backscatter x-ray machine at a TSA security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport.  (Reuters)

The Transportation Security Administration is under fire again from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are jittery about security procedures and fed up with agency leadership amid a string of embarrassing incidents.

One Republican lawmaker this week called for Administrator John Pistole to resign, citing a litany of complaints about the agency. And a congressional report alleges millions in wasted taxpayer dollars.

Their frustration boiled over during questions at a  GOP-led House hearing Wednesday on the agency’s storage and use of security equipment -- particularly on whether full-body scanners or other airport security measures could have detected the bomb confiscated by U.S. intelligence agents from an Al Qaeda affiliate in a foiled plot near the anniversary of the raid that killed Usama bin Laden.

“When we have the State of the Union (address,) what do they do?,” asked Rep Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. “They don’t bring full-body scanner machines. They bring in dogs. People are going to die if you continue to make these kinds of asinine decisions. Go get the dogs.”

David Nicholson, an assistant administrator for the agency, said he would have “great difficulty answering in a public setting” whether the TSA could have detected the new underwear bomb had somebody attempted to smuggle it aboard a United States-bound airliner.

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The congressional report details how investigators at the TSA's logistics center in Dallas recently observed 5,700 pieces of security equipment at the site. They estimated the non-utilized equipment was purchased at $184 million and that the agency was spending $3.5 annually to lease the warehouse. The report also states the agency intentionally delayed congressional oversight of the logistics center twice "in a failed attempt to hide the disposal of approximately 1,300 pieces of equipment." 

Nicholson was followed at the joint House committee hearing by Charles Edwards, the acting inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, who acknowledged some screen equipment was left in storage warehouse and became obsolete before it was put in use.

He also agreed with the assessment that TSA’s performance grade over the past four years was likely a C or a D.

A TSA spokeswoman said Thursday the agency covers more than 450 airports across U.S. and needs some equipment in storage to respond to such situations as natural disasters and increased terror threats. However, nearly 80 percent of the equipment has been warehoused for less than a year, she said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the chamber's Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, also expressed concern about the agency, including "shortcomings" in equipment acquisition.

Cummings cited a situation dating back to 2009 when the TSA deployed Advance Imaging Technology despite General Accounting Office concerns about the equipment’s testing and performance. He added that just last month the GAO reported financial concerns about the TSA's screening program for checked baggage.

Unsatisfied with the TSA’s mea culpa at the hearing or with the agency’s progress since he formally expressed his concerns about five months ago, Rep. Paul C. Broun has asked Pistole to resign.

Broun, R-Ga., cited a litany of reported TSA incidents related to ineffective work or unprofessional behavior -- including the pat-down of an 95-year-old woman and two agents allegedly taking bribes in April to allow narcotics to pass through security checkpoints at Los Angeles International Airport.

“TSA has become nothing more than a bloated, broken bureaucracy, which uses its extensive power to violate Americans’ civil liberties while doing little to ensure their safety,” Broun wrote. “Since the beginning of 2012, rarely a day has gone by without at least one report of over-the-top behavior by TSA agents.”  

The agency spokeswoman said the Obama administration continues to "have the utmost confidence in Mr. Pistole's leadership and his commitment to ensuring the safety of all Americans.”