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Transportation Security Agency faces reduced role

(The following article by Sara Kehaulani Goo was posted on the Washington Post website on April 8.)

WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Security Administration, once the flagship agency in the nation's $20 billion effort to protect air travelers, is now targeted for sharp cuts in its high-profile mission.

The latest sign came yesterday when the Bush administration asked David M. Stone, the TSA's director, to step down in June, according to aviation and government sources. Stone is the third top administrator to leave the three-year-old agency, which was created in the chaos and patriotism following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The TSA absorbed divisions of other agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, only to find itself the subject of a massive Department of Homeland Security reorganization.

The TSA has been plagued by operational missteps, public relations blunders and criticism of its performance from the public and legislators. Its "No Fly" list has mistakenly snared senators. Its security screeners have been arrested for stealing from luggage, and its passenger pat-downs have set off an outcry from women.

Under provisions of President Bush's 2006 budget proposal favored by Congress, the TSA will lose its signature programs in the reorganization of Homeland Security. The agency will probably become just a manager of airport security screeners -- a responsibility that itself could diminish as private screening companies increasingly seek a comeback at U.S. airports. The agency's very existence, in fact, remains an open question, given that the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security contains a clause permitting the elimination of the TSA as a "distinct entity" after November 2004.

"TSA, at the end of the day, is going to look more like the Postal Service," said Paul C. Light, a public service professor at New York University and a Brookings Institution scholar who has tracked the agency since its birth in February 2002. Light calls the TSA "one of the federal government's greatest successes of the past half-century" and likens it to the creation in the late 1950s of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which was also born during great public excitement to serve an urgent national need.

But the TSA's time in the spotlight is over, and it should now step back to serve a more narrow role, Light said. "It's a labor-intensive delivery organization that is not going to be making many public policy decisions. Its basic job is to train and deploy screeners," he said.

Bush administration officials say they do not expect the demise of the TSA, adding they will know little about the future of the agency until new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff completes his review of the department, which will probably prompt major changes.

"TSA has taken significant steps to enhance the nation's transportation and aviation security over the course of the past two years, and TSA continues to have the confidence, not only of nation's air travelers, but of departmental leadership, to continue in this important mission," said Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland Security spokesman. "Secretary Chertoff is open to adjustments in the way that DHS does business but will not advocate for or against any change until a thorough review of the changes is complete." The review is expected to be completed in May or June.

The government has pumped more money into airline security than any other Homeland Security effort. Much of it goes toward salaries for more than 45,000 security screeners at over 400 airports.

Travelers know the TSA mostly by its operations at the airport security checkpoint, a highly public role that magnifies the agency's smallest blunders and often forces it to defend itself.

"Most Republicans didn't want to create this [agency] in the first place. Democrats see security as an easy target. So you don't have anyone to defend it," said C. Stewart Verdery Jr., a former assistant secretary for policy and planning at Homeland Security's border and transportation security directorate, which includes the TSA. "If someone sneaks a knife through an airport, it makes the news. If the Coast Guard misses a drug boat, no one hears about it."

The TSA won early plaudits for swiftly building the first new federal agency in decades and restoring confidence in the nation's aviation system. It achieved 51 goals demanded by Congress under tight deadlines and took over many responsibilities from the FAA, including the expansion and operation of a program of undercover air marshals. At its peak, it had 66,000 federal employees and met deadlines that were unthinkable by the federal government, installing luggage-scanning technology and hiring a new workforce of airport security screeners within a year.

Bit by bit, however, the agency's responsibilities have steadily dwindled through a succession of directors. Many of its operations have been folded into Homeland Security, which it joined in 2003. The TSA scrapped early plans to create a broad law-enforcement division. The air marshals, who lobbied to leave the agency, were transferred to the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division -- to the dismay of TSA leaders. Next, the explosives unit left. Now, the agency's high-tech research labs in Atlantic City are also going to another division of the department.

Last week, momentum accelerated in the push to replace federal screeners with private contractors at the nation's airports. FirstLine Transportation Security, a Cleveland-area private security firm, became the first company to win approval for liability coverage under the SAFETY Act, which means that if the firm takes over checkpoints, claims will be capped in the event of a terrorist attack. The move clears a major hurdle in the return of private screening companies. The law creating the TSA allowed for federal screeners to be replaced by private companies after two years.

"We need to step back and look at the billions of dollars we spent on the system, which doesn't provide much more protection than we had before 9/11," said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), referring to tests conducted by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general that gave a "poor" rating to TSA screeners for their ability to catch weapons at checkpoints. Mica, a key lawmaker who helped write the law that created the agency and chairs the House aviation subcommittee, would like to see private contractors take over screening jobs at airports. "TSA was something we put in place in an emergency, but it needs to evolve. You could whittle TSA down to a very small organization and do a much better job."

Each of the TSA's three leaders has had a distinct management style and approach to security, creating a culture of perpetual change. Its first leader, John W. Magaw, was a former head of the U.S. Secret Service who wanted to make the TSA into a broad law enforcement agency with police at every checkpoint and agents directing investigations at airports. After six months of protest from Congress and the airline industry, Magaw was replaced by a popular, industry-friendly former Coast Guard commandant, James M. Loy. Loy spent much of his first year getting rid of what he called Magaw's "stupid rules" such as the secondary screening at the gates. Loy was so well liked that he was promoted to the number two job at Homeland Security, from which he resigned along with former secretary Tom Ridge earlier this year.

Stone, the TSA's current leader, is new to Washington and has been known for his cautious -- some say near paranoid -- approach to security. He presides over a much slimmer TSA, with 52,000 employees, and said he supports the president's proposed changes and is happy to give up programs -- even large ones. "I'm a big optimist," Stone said in a recent interview in his office, which looks out on the side of the Pentagon hit by an American Airlines jet in the 2001 attacks. "I'm not really concerned about turf if that's what is best for the American people. I want to look back 10 years from now and say we did it right at TSA."

TSA and Homeland Security spokesmen declined to comment on Stone's departure. "We don't discuss personnel issues," Roehrkasse said.

Every morning, Stone begins a daily two- to four-hour intelligence meeting, in which he and 40 of his top managers review incident reports from the country's 429 major airports and from train, bus and trucking systems. They comb reports of evacuated terminals, unruly passengers and unattended bags, looking for the next big threat.

Travelers, airport workers and flight crew members involved in incidents are nominated to the government's "watch lists," meaning they will be singled out for extra screening the next time they arrive at an airport. So-called "selectees" wind up on the agency's secret list because they disrupted a flight -- not necessarily because they are viewed as terrorists. For at least six months, the selectees will be pulled aside for extra scrutiny every time they fly. Several thousand names are believed to be on the list.

Stone, 52, said the exercise shows that the TSA still serves a critical role in the nation's intelligence network. He has told Chertoff that he hopes the agency will keep this role.

Airlines have complained that hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent passengers, and even pilots, have been added to the TSA's selectee list or that some names are confused with those on the "No Fly" list, subjecting travelers to hassles.

At a February meeting between the TSA and 18 major carriers, airline representatives were asked who had crew members on the list and "they all raised their hands," said one airline source who was present. Airline officials said crew members on the list must be stripped of their badges and cannot perform their duties, according to TSA rules.

Stone said "one or two" pilots who are approved to carry guns in the cockpit have been put on the selectee list in the past year. He said he recalls a "handful" of other pilots who have been added to the selectee list because they were involved in "outrageous" incidents. He cited an incident last year in which an intoxicated pilot punched a patron at a restaurant and threatened him.

"We take all of these incidents seriously, and we work to resolve them quickly because we know that people's livelihoods are at stake," said Mark Hatfield, a TSA spokesman.

Stone faces the challenge of keeping the TSA's workforce motivated. Many screeners took their jobs expecting that the new agency would provide a path to a federal career. At a recent hearing, Stone acknowledged that screeners suffer from low morale. According to an internal survey last year, 35 percent of employees are satisfied with their job.

Stone said other security directors sympathize with him, saying: "You've got the toughest job in federal government. You're under the gun for every little thing. You're constantly under the microscope."

Friday, April 8, 2005

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