The Transportation Security Administration has fired more than 1,200 passenger security screeners, after background checks showed that some of them were convicted felons.
And six months after the TSA took over airport security, it still has not completed background checks on over half of its 53,000 screeners.
"One mistake, or one unsavory character and you have one huge, potentially fatal circumstance on your hands," said Representative Hal Rogers, Republican from Kentucky. Rogers is the chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which held hearings into the matter Tuesday.
The concern stems from TSA employee statistics revealed by Rogers at the hearing. Eighty-five of the 1,200 screeners fired had been convicted of felonies prior to their employment with the TSA. In addition, 503 failed to disclose prior arrests and 137 had pre-employment drug convictions. Each of those dismissed had been given jobs initially, while background checks were pending.
Admiral James Loy, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the new Department of Homeland Security, testified Tuesday that the TSA's method of hiring is standard practice across government agencies.
"[T]he normal process of a hire pending the completion of a background investigation is a relatively routine process," he said.
But lawmakers are concerned that once notification of potential problems reached the TSA, action was still taken slowly. Representative Tom Latham, R-Iowa, expressed concerns over the timeline taken.
"Why wasn't this done in February or March? Why wasn't the priority put in place at that time?" Latham said.
Loy said that in hindsight, he wished his department had acted differently.
"Frankly, looking back I wish I had had the insight to do exactly that. So I don't have an excuse for you, if you're looking for one."
Lt. Col. Mike Ferrill, a former TSA manager at the South Bend, Ind., airport, contends that a thorough screening could have been completed in the first 30 to 60 days.
"The fact that nothing was being done simply tells me that TSA was not responsible enough to the American people to even do preliminary background checks on these people, even in the initial hiring phases," Ferrill said.
The TSA said its background checks were extensive and involved fingerprint matches against the FBI criminal data base, as well as more extensive background examinations. The agency insists some 97 percent of its screeners have already had the intitial fingerprint checks.
But airport authorities in two major cities were concerned when they discovered convicted criminals were working at security checkpoints. Officials at Los Angeles International and the at New York Port Authority, which oversees LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newarks airports, are now doing their own fingerprint checks of security screeners.
Loy promised that finishing the checks is now a top priority for the agency. He pledged to Congress that all the screeners would be screened by October 1. Committee members said they would hold him to that deadline, and promised another hearing then to make sure the background checks were complete.