WASHINGTON – Transportation Department officials agreed Monday to make it easier for the new airport passenger screeners to report security problems.
The Transportation Security Administration said the 30,000 employees who will be hired to check passengers and carryon luggage at airports will have whistle-blower protection like other federal workers.
Under the whistle-blower law, a federal employee cannot be punished for coming forward with information about violations, abuses, dangers to public health or safety, or misspent funds.
Last month, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency, ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to rehire an employee who lost his job after telling supervisors that an airport security trainee had the same last name as one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. The FBI later cleared the trainee.
The screeners, now private employees, do not come under the federal whistle-blower law, and the airline security law gave the undersecretary for transportation security, John Magaw, authority to decide whether to give those protections to screeners.
"Whistle-blower protection is ... a part of doing the people's business, the organization's business, in a proper way," said Magaw, who formerly headed the U.S. Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Of concern to the agency is that screeners who fail to detect weapons or explosives during tests may challenge their firings by claiming retaliation.
Under the agreement signed with the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the whistle-blower law, Magaw could still fire screeners, though they could be rehired if they prove they lost their jobs because they complained about security problems.
Screeners and their supervisors could file complaints with the Office of Special Counsel, which will report its findings and recommendations to the Transportation Security Administration. If the agency does not agree with the recommendations, they go to Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta for the final decision.
While the Office of Special Counsel can take its complaint to the Merit Systems Protection Board if an agency disagrees with its findings, that appeal process will not be allowed for screeners. Magaw said agency heads usually cannot fire someone until an appeal is heard by the board.
Kenneth Mead, the Transportation Department inspector general, whose agency often investigates whistle-blower complaints, praised the new arrangement.
"This agreement sends a firm message to all that retaliation for disclosures of possible security lapses will not be tolerated," Mead said.
"As we transition to an all federal screening work force, we -- and most of all, the public -- must be assured that any activity with the potential to compromise security is reported without fear of retaliation so that it can be immediately addressed."
Officials of a law firm that represents whistle-blowers said Congress should change the law to give full protection to security screeners.
"An agency honor system is no substitute for legally enforceable rights protecting those who try to protect the flying public from bureaucratic breakdowns," said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project.