Congress antsy about TSA tech tests

Amid rumblings on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about more pilot tests, the Transportation Security Administration has entered the second phase of a program that is testing ways to control employee access to secure areas of airport facilities.

Officials are using the Airport Access Control Pilot Program to evaluate biometrics and other technology that could enable authorized employees to enter

secure areas while keeping others out.

The first phase of the pilot tested radio frequency identification, advanced video surveillance and antipiggybacking technologies to prevent more than one vehicle from passing through a gate at a time. Officials also tested various combinations of biometric technologies in eight airports.

Surveys and interviews of the approximately 2,600 participants will follow in the second phase.

Critics have several concerns. They question the usefulness of the pilot and the feasibility of a one-size-fits-all solution. Such solutions could include technology that is not fully proven, and some critics question how much imperfection agency officials should tolerate.

Lawmakers argue that officials at TSA and the Homeland Security Department are investing too much time and energy in running pilot tests rather than fielding solutions. The access-control program is one of several projects in the testing phase at DHS.

At a hearing of the House Transportation Committee's Aviation Subcommittee, lawmakers expressed frustration with what they believe is excessive testing.

Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) announced plans to draft legislation to compel DHS to take decisive action toward selecting and implementing solutions.

Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary for policy and planning at DHS' Border and Transportation Security Directorate, testified before the subcommittee.

"Somebody over there, please make a decision, and the rest will fall in place," Mica told him. "I know it's hard, and somebody has to assume responsibility and go forward. But there is nothing here in any of these tests that will come up with anything new."

Other subcommittee members shared Mica's frustration.

Carter Morris, vice president of transportation security policy for the American Association of Airport Executives, said the answer to the problem of selecting the perfect technology while meeting a reasonable time frame lies somewhere in the middle of the two objectives.

Nevertheless, he said, TSA's access-control test has taken too long to bear fruit. "I think TSA [officials] would be the first to admit that," he said.

Morris said experts should not test technologies until they agree on a universal

solution. "What you do is create the menu and say, 'Pick off this menu,' " he said.

Lawmakers have clearly emphasized expediency. But their impatience with the progress of pilot programs does not imply disapproval of the testing process.

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How many projects are too many?

Lawmakers are concerned that the Transportation Security Administration is doing a lot of testing and not enough implementing.

Among the programs TSA is piloting:

Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II: Passenger names would be compared to those on a terrorist watch list to stop suspicious travelers from boarding commercial aircraft.

Registered Traveler Program: Personal and biometric data would be stored to allow some travelers to pass through an expedited security process in airports.

Transportation Worker Identification Credential: The program seeks to create a standard ID for granting authorized workers access to facilities and computer systems.

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