By JOE SHARKEY
Representative Reid Ribble fixed witnesses assembled at a House aviation subcommittee hearing last Thursday with a baleful stare.
“I am very disappointed that the T.S.A. was unwilling to come,” said Mr. Ribble, a freshman Republican from Wisconsin. “I understand how uncomfortable these hearings can be for them, especially since we’re talking about a lot of complaints today. But part of their job is to let the American people know what they’re doing.”
The director of the Transportation Security Administration, John S. Pistole, had declined to testify before this particular subcommittee on two previous occasions, despite angry criticism from some members who are longtime agency critics.
The reason, the agency later explained, is that oversight for the T.S.A. resides in the House Homeland Security Committee — not the aviation subcommittee, which is a part of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The agency noted that in the 112th Congress alone, officials had testified at 38 hearings and provided 425 individual briefings.
So the T.S.A. sat out that one last week — and got lambasted for it, at both the hearing and in some media accounts.
No one would argue that the T.S.A. should not be held closely accountable. There have been too many problems. Since the agency was created in the aftermath of Sept. 11, this column has regularly reported on many of them, like the outrage that began in 2004 over charges that some screeners were groping female travelers. More recently, the agency faced questions about its decision to replace metal detectors with those whole-body image machines, which the T.S.A. still has not adequately defended against claims that they are personally invasive, arguably unsafe and ultimately not as reliable as good old metal detectors.
On the other hand, the hearing last Thursday seemed to have an agenda, which was that the T.S.A. should be replaced by private security companies — you know, like the ones that were accused of hiring poorly trained, underpaid screeners at airports before Sept. 11 brought a somewhat more intense focus to checkpoint security.
One of the leaders of that charge is Representative John L. Mica, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee. At Thursday’s subcommittee hearing, Mr. Mica said that the T.S.A. was “out of control.” He said Mr. Pistole was defying the committee to protect “one of the biggest bureaucracies that has ever expanded in the history of our federal government.”
Mr. Mica said, “We need to be closing down T.S.A. as we know it.” Representative Thomas Petri, a Wisconsin Republican who is the subcommittee chairman, was even more harsh in denouncing Mr. Pistole and his agency. “A fish,” Mr. Petri said, “rots from the head.”
Underlying the issue is a Congressional provision that gives airports the option of replacing T.S.A. screeners with private security companies. Only about 16 of the nation’s 450 airports have done so, and a handful of mostly small airports have requests pending.
Five witnesses testified at the sparsely attended hearing on Thursday. Several, including Stephen M. Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, offered cogent suggestions and critiques for various T.S.A. initiatives, including the PreCheck program that allows expedited security for selected high-frequency passengers who undergo background checks. PreCheck will operate in 35 airports by the end of the year. Another, Charlie Leocha, the director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, offered some solid recommendations, most of them long familiar to critics of the T.S.A. Among them was rethinking the prohibited items list for carry-ons, which ties up screeners and annoys passengers at checkpoints, in an arguably useless search for small items that could never be used to hijack airplanes. Another was to get rid of those body-scanner machines.