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Airport Screeners Rate Poorly

Airport security screeners perform poorly, whether they're government or privately employed workers, the Homeland Security Department's chief investigator told Congress on Thursday.

The House aviation subcommittee received reports from Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, the General Accounting Office and a private firm. The government reports found airport security is lax and all three described the Transportation Security Administration as overly bureaucratic.

Ervin told lawmakers the TSA screeners and privately contracted airport workers "performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly."

The report by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said its conclusions were based on covert testing of the screeners' ability to detect dangerous objects at checkpoints.

Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said the situation is so serious he plans to hold an emergency meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other key agency officials in the next 10 days to discuss ways to tighten airport security.

"We have a system that doesn't work," said Mica, who threatened to subpoena Ridge and the others if they fail to respond to his request for a meeting.

Though the specific results of the inspector general report were classified, the committee's ranking Democrat said it showed that passenger screening is no better than it was 17 years ago.

"The inadequacies and loopholes in the system are phenomenal," Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio said.

The inspector general's report, as well as a study by the GAO portrayed the TSA as an unresponsive, inflexible bureaucracy that is failing to provide an adequate level of security at airports.

Congress created the TSA after the Sept. 11 attacks to replace the privately employed screeners with a better-paid, better-trained federal work force. Lawmakers also gave airports the option of returning to private screeners next Nov. 19, three years after President Bush signed the bill into law.

Congress also ordered five commercial airports to use privately employed screeners who are hired, trained, paid and tested to TSA standards to serve as a comparison to the federal employees. Those airports are in San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; Jackson, Wyo.; and Kansas City, Mo.

But because the TSA didn't give private contractors much leeway, they "could not effectively and immediately address problems with high attrition levels, understaffing, excessive overtime, and employee morale issues," Ervin wrote in a prepared statement.