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Homeland Security

Subcommittee on Aviation

Hearing on

The Transportation Security Administration's Perspective On Aviation Security

TABLE OF CONTENTS(Click on Section)





The purpose of this hearing is to receive testimony from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regarding the status of its programs to improve aviation security.


The hearing will give Members of the Subcommittee an opportunity to discuss a wide range of aviation security issues with the Administrator of the TSA. Some of those issues are summarized below.

Shoulder fired missiles

In the fall of 2002, terrorists believed to be connected with al Qaeda, fired shoulder-fired missiles (small, portable weapons, known as "man-portable air defense systems" or MANPADS) at an Israeli passenger plane taking off from the airport in Mombasa, Kenya. Luckily the aircraft escaped destruction. As a result of that attack, this Subcommittee held a hearing in March of 2003 on Protecting Commercial Aircraft from the Threat of Missile Attacks. Then in August of this year, Federal authorities arrested three people and foiled an international plot to smuggle a shoulder-fired missile into the United States. These incidents indicate that shoulder-fired missiles pose a potential threat to commercial aircraft.

Threat of MANPADS

Opinions differ as to whether such weapons could be used to bring down a commercial aircraft within the United States. Some believe that the likelihood of a terrorist missile attack within the United States is very low. They contend that there are no intelligence reports indicating that MANPADS have been smuggled into the U.S, and that there are no confirmed incidents within the United States. Other indications of a low threat level include the crude nature of the weapons available on the black market, poor care of the weapons, lack of training, and the small size of the warhead contained in most MANPADS. MANPADS are not large missiles. Therefore, it is argued that even a direct hit on an aircraft would likely result in disabling one engine or localized damage to the wing, but it would not likely take down a passenger air carrier. The contention is that commercial aircraft are large, sturdy aircraft and are much less vulnerable to missile attacks when compared to military aircraft. Commercial aircraft have two or more engines and can be flown with a disabled engine. In addition, the engines on commercial aircraft give off far less heat than the engines on military fighters. Therefore, commercial aircraft are a harder target for the missiles to hone in on.

Others focus on the availability, portability and concealable make-up of MANPADS to point to how easy it would be to smuggle the weapon into the country and fire it at an aircraft without much notice. MANPADS, they contend, are not sophisticated weapons and are actually very easy to arm, aim and fire. Those who believe that the threat to U.S. commercial aircraft is high, point to the cases where large aircraft have been brought down by MANPAD attacks, and cite estimates that 42 civilian aircraft have been fired on around the world since the 1970's.

Federal Government Response

The Federal Government has taken a number of steps to respond to the potential threat of shoulder-fired missiles. The lead Federal agency in this effort is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS has created a special program office that will deal solely with the issue of shoulder-fired missiles and missile defense systems for commercial aircraft.

DHS initiated a two-phase Systems Development and Demonstration (SD&D) program for antimissile systems for commercial aircraft. Through the issuance of a pre-solicitation notice in September and a solicitation notice last week, DHS has announced that it will investigate directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) and other technologies to provide protection against MANPADS. Specifically, this program has been described as not intended to develop new technologies, but rather migrate existing technologies from the military environment to the commercial airline industry. Phase I of the Counter-MANPAD program will explore, over a six-month period, quantified solutions to the potential threat of MANPADS to commercial aircraft. During this phase, DHS will investigate a number of outstanding issues including cost, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification, reliability, maintenance, and airport operational procedures. Phase II will entail an 18-month prototype development program using existing technology, which will be subjected to demonstration tests and evaluation.

Additionally, the Department of Defense (DOD) has conducted numerous studies on missile defense options ranging from on-the-ground activities to high-tech, high cost, on-board missile defense systems for large aircraft. The technology exists to defend an aircraft from MANPAD attacks. In fact, a number of missile defense systems have been developed and deployed for use by the military. The DOD is working closely with DHS in its efforts to develop missile defense systems for use in the commercial aviation setting.

Finally, DHS, in cooperation with other Federal, State and local agencies, has taken other steps to address the potential threat of shoulder-fired missiles. This includes buy-back programs, intelligence gathering and law enforcement activities, and threat assessments along with response and security planning at airports throughout the United States and abroad.

Screener performance

Nearly two years after passage of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, significant concerns regarding screener performance continue to exist. TSA currently collects little information to measure screener performance, but recent operational testing conducted by both TSA's Office of Internal Affairs and Program Review and GAO's Office of Special Investigations indicate that performance is disappointing. In addition, the DHS Inspector General recently reported that screeners were given the answers to their certification tests before taking those tests.

GAO recently issued a report that presented the preliminary results of their ongoing evaluation of airport passenger screeners. This report indicates there are a number of deficiencies in the TSA passenger-screening program. These include:

  • TSA's failure to fully develop and deploy a recurrent or supervisory training program;
  • TSA's failure to collect information to measure screener performance in detecting threat objects, including the delayed fielding of the Threat Image Projection (TIP) system;
  • TSA's failure to determine how to evaluate and measure the performance of the five airports in the pilot program that use contract screeners; and
  • TSA's failure to even begin to plan for the possible transition of airports from the federal screeners to private screeners beginning November 2004.

TSA has taken some steps to address the deficiencies in screener training and performance evaluation described in the GAO Report. First, TSA is developing six recurrent training modules, the first of which it plans to deploy to all airports beginning in October 2003. Each of the five remaining modules will be released throughout 2004 as they are finalized. Also in October 2003, TSA will implement an On-Line Learning Management System comprised of 366 various training courses. Regarding supervisory training, TSA is working with the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Graduate School to tailor its off-the-shelf supervisory course to the specific needs of TSA's screening supervisors and is expected to be fielded in April 2004.

Second, TSA plans to begin implementing an annual screener certification program in October 2003. TSA has already reviewed the proficiency of nearly two-thirds of its screeners as part of its "right-sizing" effort and will incorporate these results as part of the re-certification process for the entire screener workforce over the next several months.

Third, TSA is in the process of re-activating the Threat Image Projection (TIP) system, with significantly more threat images than were used by the FAA. The TIP system, which the FAA deployed in late 1999 to measure and improve screener performance, places images of threat objects on x-ray screens during actual operations and records whether screeners identify the threat. While the FAA used 200 threat images, TSA will use 2,400 images. Currently, TSA has deployed 1,345 of the 1,795 TIP-ready X-ray machines (TRXs) needed across the country to replace conventional x-ray machines. TSA will upload its new, expanded TIP library of 2,400 images on all deployed TRXs by the end of November 2003. TSA will then collect and analyze the TIP data in December, allowing it to establish a national baseline view of screener performance.

Finally, TSA has committed to an internal special operations program that will test screener performance, the reliability of its equipment, and the adequacy of its Standard Operating Procedures. Within the last year, TSA conducted 733 checkpoint tests and almost 2,200-airport security access and checked baggage tests at 95 airports. TSA plans to test all airports over a three-year period, with more frequent tests of the larger airports. Additional testing will be performed by the DHS Inspector General's office.

Explosive Detection Systems

In 1988, Pan Am flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie Scotland by a bomb placed in a piece of checked luggage. After that terrorist attack, efforts were undertaken to develop a device that could automatically detect explosives in checked luggage. By September 11, 2001, machines had been developed but they were not widely used.

After the terrorist attack of September 11th, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) was enacted. Section 109 of that Act required all checked luggage to be screened for explosives by the end of 2002.

When ATSA was enacted, many hoped this deadline would be met using certified bulk detection equipment; specifically the CTX and L-3 machines that work like a CAT scan to automatically detect explosives. However, these machines are large, slow, and have a high false alarm rate. It became apparent that they could not be produced and deployed at airports in sufficient numbers to screen all checked bags by the end 2002. As a result, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) decided to also use trace detection equipment at many airports. These devices require an operator to rub a piece of cloth on or in a bag and then place that cloth into a machine to check for explosive residue. While also effective, trace detection is more labor intensive than bulk detection equipment.

Even by combining bulk and trace detection, the TSA was unable to complete deployment of EDS equipment at about 5% of the airports by the end of 2002. At these airports, ATSA provided that checked luggage could be screened by matching the bag to the passenger to ensure that the bag did not remain on the plane if the passenger who checked it did not board as well. However, bag matching is not effective in thwarting a suicide bomber.

In the Homeland Security Act, the TSA was given another year to ensure that all checked baggage was screened by bulk or trace detection. However, at about 2% of the airports, TSA will be unable to deploy enough equipment to meet this deadline.

To assist in the deployment of this equipment, section 367 of the Consolidated Appropriations Resolution 2003 established a letter of intent (LOI) program under which TSA would commit to funding terminal modifications at airports in order to accommodate the large EDS equipment. In the FAA Conference Report, $250 million per year was guaranteed for this program. In the recently enacted Homeland Security Appropriations Act, $250 million was provided for this program, but language was included negating the guarantee in the FAA Conference Report even before it was enacted.

Due to the shortcomings of the existing explosive detection equipment, there have been calls for research and development of better equipment. Congress appropriated $75 million for research and development in order to improve explosive detection equipment, but about $62 million of that has been diverted by TSA to pay the salaries of its employees.

While most of the checked luggage is now screened using explosive detection equipment, very little of the carry-on luggage is. In addition, passengers are not screened in a way that ensures that they are not carrying explosives on their body. Recent terrorists, such as Richard Reid in France in late 2001 and Ramzi Yousef in Asia in 1994, have carried explosives aboard commercial aircraft in their clothing or carry-ons. In H.R. 2144, approved by the Committee in June, there is a provision requiring TSA to give priority to developing equipment that can screen carry-on luggage and passengers for explosives, but current equipment is still largely effective only at detecting metal weapons, not plastic explosives.

There is also concern about the lack of screening of cargo that is placed in the belly of passenger aircraft. Currently, cargo is screened using the known shipper program under which an airline will carry only the cargo from shippers that are known to it. But cargo typically does not go through an EDS like checked baggage. When the Homeland Security Appropriations was being considered, Congressman Markey's amendment requiring all cargo to be screened passed in the House. However, there were concerns that the necessary EDS equipment was not available. The Markey amendment was not included in the legislation that was finally enacted.

Federal Flight Deck Officer Program

The Homeland Security Act authorized pilots to participate in the Federal Flight Deck Officer program. This program allows pilots to receive training that will allow them to carry firearms while piloting commercial aircraft. The program has received $8 million in FY2003 and will receive $25 million in FY2004.

As of October 4, 2003, l1 FFDO classes have completed the initial training course (seven in Glynco, Georgia and four in Artesia, New Mexico). Several of the aspects of the FFDO program remain controversial with the pilots. These include:

  • Psychological testing;
  • The requirement that the gun be carried in a lockbox held by the pilot rather than in a holster worn by the pilot;
  • The practice of separating pilots from their weapons during transit flights;
  • The lack of clear re-qualification procedures;
  • Credentials and badges; and
  • TSA reluctance to use private facilities for pilot re-qualification.

General aviation access to Reagan National Airport

Since September 11, 2001, private planes and charter operations, except for some with elected officials on board, have been prohibited from landing or taking off from Reagan National Airport (DCA). General aviation flights at 3 local general aviation airports are still severely restricted. At this time, the Administration has no plan for reopening DCA to general aviation.

Section 823 of Vision 100, Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act Conference Report (H.R. 2115) directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop and implement a security plan that will permit general aviation flight at DCA. Under this section, FAA must allow any aircraft that complies with this plan to takeoff and land at DCA except when the President suspends the plan due to National security concerns.

Computer assisted prescreening system - CAPPS II

The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), currently under development by TSA, is intended to identify terrorists and other high-risk individuals before they board commercial airplanes. CAPPS II will run information provided by passengers during the reservation process - name, date of birth, home address and home phone number -- against commercial databases to provide to TSA an "authentication score" indicating a confidence level in each passenger's identity. CAPPS II will also conduct a risk assessment of each passenger using the passenger name record (PNR) data and national security information, and provide a "risk score" to TSA.

Once implemented, likely by Summer 2004, TSA expects CAPPS II to identify approximately 3-4 percent of passengers as requiring additional screening (labeled "yellow" for unknown risk), and up to 500 passengers per year as possible threats (labeled "red" for high risk). This would represent a significant reduction in the percentage of passengers currently singled out for additional screening.

TSA is ready to begin testing CAPPS II using "historical" passenger data. Airlines have not yet agreed to supply such data, due to controversy over privacy concerns. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are concerned that CAPPS II would use information sources that are neither disclosed to fliers nor subject to public oversight and control, and analyze that information using criteria that are also neither disclosed nor subject to public oversight. Such organizations are worried that CAPPS II could be based on inaccurate data that fliers never get a chance to correct.

TSA says that while it cannot disclose the specific sources of information on which it will base its risk assessment, it will provide a passenger advocate office to work with individuals who believe they have been denied boarding or subjected to additional scrutiny in error. In addition, TSA intends for CAPPS II to be subject to oversight by an entity independent from DHS, although this idea is still being developed.

The recently enacted FY 2004 Homeland Security Appropriations Act prohibits the use of funds to deploy or implement, on other than a test basis, CAPPS II until the General Accounting Office (GAO) has reported to the Appropriations Committees on a variety of issues, including privacy, due process, and the accuracy of CAPPS II. The GAO report is due no later than February 15, 2004. According to TSA, this provision will not delay implementation of CAPPS II, since testing is not expected to be complete until after February 15, 2004.

Passenger name record (PNR) negotiations with the European union

In the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, Congress gave the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within DHS, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) authority to require access to Passenger Name Record (PNR) data. PNR is an extensive data set held in airline computers when a travel reservation is made and can contain as many as 60 data fields or separate pieces of information. CBP uses PNR for border screening, and TSA will need PNR for passenger pre-screening or CAPPS II.

Under the European Union's (EU's) privacy directive, and absent an applicable exception (on public interest or other specified grounds), personal information originating from within EU Member States may not be transferred to nations that do not provide adequate privacy protection for such data. The EU has asserted that PNR data access infringes upon the EU's privacy directive and exposes air carriers to punishing lawsuits and fines.

Despite this determination, an interim arrangement allowed CBP to access PNR data beginning in March 2003. Intensive discussions with the EU since then have resulted in the development of comprehensive U.S. commitments to address EU concerns on access, processing, use, storage, and protection of the PNR information. At the same time, led by the DHS, the U.S. Government has engaged in an effort to obtain a European Commission (EC) finding that the United States' system for handling PNR data is "adequate" under article 25(6) of the privacy directive. An adequacy finding would authorize permanent access to PNR data for both CBP and the TSA.

Current PNR access negotiations between the U.S. and the EC primarily center on the following issues. The European Parliament has many additional proposals that would be much more restrictive and focus principally on data protection concerns.

  • Limiting the Allowed Uses of PNR Data: It is the U.S. Government's position that DHS and DOJ need the PNR data to complete their border security and law enforcement missions in addition to combating terrorism. The EC takes the position that U.S. PNR data access can be justified for counter-terrorism purposes, but not law enforcement.
  • Providing Independent Redress to Passengers: The DHS has committed significant resources to address the EU's concern regarding independent redress. The DHS Chief Privacy Officer is totally independent of any directorate within the Department; is obligated to present her findings in a detailed report to Congress; and must conduct full, fair, open and binding appeals to cases in dispute or allegations of inaccurate information. Her decisions are binding and will not be overturned on political grounds. The EC wants to have either an independent arbiter outside of the U.S. Government review claims involving EU citizens, or make the U.S.'s commitments legally binding.
  • Decreasing the Period of Data Retention: The U.S. has greatly reduced the period during which data will be retained to 7 years (from 50 years). CBP/ TSA need to retain this information for investigative, analytical and auditing purposes. The U.S. will also restrict the number of analysts authorized to access the information after the first 7 days. Data, if manually viewed in that first 7 years, would be kept for another 8 years for auditing purposes only, but not investigative reasons. The EC has proposed that the period during which PNR data will be retained be further reduced to three years.
  • Reduce the number of PNR Data Fields Accessed by the U.S: The U.S. has run exhaustive analyses to find the specific PNR data fields that are essential to create a system for the authentication and risk assessment of passengers. They have concluded that 39 of the 60 data fields must be accessed. Eliminating any of these 39 data fields would seriously impede the operational effectiveness of their respective systems. The EC seeks to reduce the number of PNR data fields accessed from 39 to 25.



The Honorable James M. Loy
Transportation Security Administration

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