Shaky Takeoff For Fed Air Screeners

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The push to put federal screeners at airport gates and metal detectors led to botched background checks on some workers who were then given security passes, a newspaper reported Friday.

Among the foul-ups were questionnaires that were lost and fingerprints that were never checked against a national crime database.

Because of the problems, several major airports plan to recheck the screeners the Los Angeles Times reports. New York City area airports began that process last month, and LAX plans to start soon.

The problems came to light after several screeners were fired for having criminal records. The Transportation Security Administration said it had conducted sufficient checks on all of its 55,600 screeners. But a congressional office told the Times that thousands of workers had not been vetted.

"The legal mandate required them to hire a full complement of screeners, and they couldn't meet the deadline and also run with background checks," the official told The Times.

The background checks are one of several growing pains now afflicting the agency created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks

In early May, the government announced plans to eliminate 3,000 more airport screening jobs by the end of September. The cuts, coupled with 3,000 others announced in March, amount to about 11 percent of the 55,600 screeners employed. The moves will save the TSA an estimated $280 million, director James Loy said.

The job cuts address critics in Congress, mainly Republicans, who believe the TSA grew too large too fast. To get around a congressionally mandated cap of 45,000 full-time screeners the TSA hired 9,000 "temporary" workers, most of whom were given five-year contracts.

Airline security advocate Paul Hudson said the job cuts would compromise airport security unless the TSA improves other parts of the system. For example, he said, buying more van-sized bomb-detection machines would mean fewer screeners would be needed to operate the labor-intensive wands that detect traces of explosives.

"These labor cutbacks — unless they're coupled with some other measures to compensate to improve the system further — they will result in an overall reduction in security," said Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project.

TSA uses a four-part process to verify that its employees are not security risks. The third step in the process is a background probe conducted by a private firm, ChoicePoint.

A federal office then double checks the information that applicants gave ChoicePoint.

A TSA spokesman tells the Times the fourth step is the only part that is not yet complete.

However, some screeners tell the Times that ChoicePoint did not contact them until they had worked at airports for months. Some workers had to re-submit prints because, they say they were told, they had been lost.

ChoicePoint last year settled a lawsuit brought by the NAACP over the actions of a subsidiary, Database Technologies, which was accused of wrongly purging thousands of voters from the rolls in Florida ahead of the tight 200 presidential election. ChoicePoint acquired Database Technologies after the initial list of purged voters was prepared.

ChoicePoint currently is contracted to provide information on residents of 10 Latin American countries to the federal government.

The company says it buys the files from subcontractors in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. But it refuses to name the sellers or say where those parties obtained the data.

Privacy experts in Latin America question whether the sales of national citizen registries have been legal. They say government data are often sold clandestinely by individual government employees.