GAO urges planning consistency at TSA

The Transportation Security Administration needs better planning and risk management assessment, a Government Accountability Office official told a Senate committee this week.

In a Feb. 15 hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Cathleen Berrick, the Government Accountability Office's director of homeland security and justice issues, applauded TSA on strengthening aviation security by deploying 40,000 airport passenger and baggage screeners, installing explosive detection systems to screen all checked baggage and expanding screener training. But the agency can do better, Berrick said.

"While these efforts are commendable, we found that TSA has not consistently implemented a risk management approach or conducted the systematic analysis needed to inform its decision-making processes and to prioritize security improvements," she told the committee.

If explosive detection and airport baggage conveyor systems were coordinated, TSA could save many federal dollars.

GAO will issue several TSA reports within the next few weeks, including a report evaluating the impact of controversial Secure Flight on aviation security, which Congress needs before funds can be used for an identity verification system that uses private databases. TSA officials must get congressional approval to proceed with the program.

Part of the Homeland Security Department's plan includes consolidating several department programs to reduce overhead administrative costs, as outlined in President Bush's proposed budget. The department would combine various screening and identification activities to form the Office of Screening Coordination and Operations (SCO) within the Border and Transportation Security Directorate. The new office's programs would include U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT), TSA's Secure Flight and Crew Vetter, Free and Secure Trade, TSA's Transportation Worker Identification Credential, and TSA's Registered Traveler.

"Restructuring to reduce redundancy is good," Berrick said, after testifying. "It will be important that they look at commonalities between the programs and coordinate closely between the programs. Making the organizational changes alone isn't enough."

Her testimony also mentioned key TSA milestones within the coming months. TSA expects testing of watch lists to end later this month. And pending Congressional approval, TSA hopes to complete commercial data testing in early April and then perform additional functionality tests. Then Secure Flight might go live with one or two carriers in August.

The President's fiscal 2006 Secure Flight budget requests about $94 million, up $46 million, for testing, information systems, connectivity to airlines and daily operations.

Another major initiative, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), may get $245 million in the proposed fiscal year 2006 budget. That sum, which DHS hopes to recover through applicant fees, would distribute about two million biometric identification cards by the end of fiscal 2006.

GAO officials also called for TSA to carry out certain measures to secure air cargo, including establishing shipper databases and finding security technology that can be used for a system that screens all high-risk cargo.

TSA said it is reviewing the recommendations in the GAO testimony.

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