GAO wants better data, fewer contractors.
An unidentified TSA agent searches a bag. (Photo by Carolina K. Smith MD)
The homeland security agency that oversees background checks for federally issued port and transportation worker identity cards needs to clean up the data it uses to vet applicants and rely less on private contractors to do the checks, said a recent Government Accountability Office study.
The Transportation Security Administration's Adjudication Center is the agency's primary operational component in assessing potential threats among workers who have unescorted access to the secure areas of the nation's critical transportation infrastructure. Those workers must get Transportation Worker Identification Cards (TWIC) from TSA.
TSA officials said there were 2.3 million active cards as of July 7, and it had found 51,930 applicants ineligible for the document since October 2007.
TWIC technical and procedural difficulties have raised Congressional concerns before. Backlogged TWIC applications have also been a common complaint on Capitol Hill.
In the study released in the last days of July, GAO said Congress had asked it to examine the Adjudication Center's performance and staffing strategy. The watchdog agency looked at how TSA measured performance for the center and what its data showed. The assessment also include the ways in which TSA offices have coordinated to meet security threat assessment workload, and how the agency addressed the potential risks of using a mix of government employees and contractors to decide security threat assessments.
What GAO found was a mix of positives and negatives. It said while the center met timeliness and performance measures, it didn't meet caseload performance measures, which lead to application backups. It also found that applicants who had been disqualified weren't informed in time to appeal the decision in an effective manner. GAO also questioned the center's accuracy rates because it counted only disqualified applicants, and not incorrectly approved ones. While the center relies heavily on a contractor workforce, TSA said it has no transition plans to establish the government-only workforce it has said it wants to run the center.
"TSA must resolve the deficiencies that plague the Adjudication Center," said House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) "TWIC applicants deserve an appeals process that is fair, efficient, and accurate – and the American public deserves a process that quickly and accurately ferrets out those individuals who may present a threat to ports and railways. TSA's continued over-reliance on contractors to complete much of this work must end."
GAO recommended that TSA should:
Direct the center to calculate an accuracy rate that includes adjudicator performance for cases where applicants were both approved and disqualified
Share adjudicator staffing plans among key program offices;
Update its Adjudication Center workforce conversion plan and provide it to DHS for review and approval.
According to the report, DHS concurred with the recommendations.
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