Congressional committee considers criminal referral for TSA

Thursday - 5/10/2012, 5:20am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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A new congressional report accuses the Transportation Security Administration of mismanaging its acquisition and management of airport screening equipment by storing millions of dollars in high-tech gear in a Texas warehouse instead of deploying it to airports. In addition, a top lawmaker believes TSA may have engaged in a criminal cover-up to hide some of the excess equipment from Congressional investigators.

The joint investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was a response to longstanding Congressional concerns about the efficiency of the TSA's acquisition and deployment practices for large, expensive security screening systems. In a report released Wednesday, Congressional staff said that at the very least, TSA delayed the staff investigation. At worst, the agency may have violated criminal law.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)

The allegation springs from an alleged disparity between an inventory TSA provided Congress for the equipment in its centralized Dallas logistics center for security screening equipment and what investigators found when they visited the warehouse in person.

"My staff was given documents that were not accurate as to the day they were given," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, during a Wednesday hearing. "They were a projection of what you were planning to shove out the back door in the days before [investigators] came in. I would propose that we have the ability to criminally refer that as lying to Congress."

According to investigators, warehouse managers admitted that they had disposed of roughly 1,300 pieces of equipment in the two days between the time when TSA gave Congress its inventory and when Congressional investigators arrived in Dallas in order to make the actual contents of the warehouse match the previously-provided records. Warehouse workers were brought in at 6 a.m., ahead of their usual shifts, in order to remove the equipment before congressional investigators arrived, the report suggested.

TSA has "no knowledge" of misleading Congress

David Nicholson, TSA's assistant administrator for finance and administration, told lawmakers that he would look into the timeline of what occurred during congressional staffs' interaction with the TSA and what information the agency gave to Congress. But he said he had "no knowledge" that the claims made by congressional staff were accurate or than anyone in TSA misled Congress.

David Nicholson, assistant administrator for finance and administration, TSA

More broadly, congressional overseers were disturbed about problems first identified in a 2009 Homeland Security Inspector General's report, which found that TSA had bought millions of dollars worth of explosives detection equipment and left it in its central warehouse for one to two years rather than deploying it directly to airports. According to congressional staff, not much has changed since then.

The staff report said investigators found 5,700 pieces of screening equipment worth $184 million during the February visit. About 85 percent of that equipment had been sitting in storage for at least six months.

At Wednesday's hearing, Issa asked Nicholson why it appeared the agency was buying millions of dollars' worth of screening equipment before it had a clear need for it at an airport.

"It depends on the piece of equipment," Nicholson said. "When it comes to things like explosives trace detection equipment, there are several thousands of those, and we don't always buy them with the exact locations of those pieces of equipment in mind, but we do have a forecast of when the service life of those pieces of equipment would expire. So we buy a quantity and then later determine which airport they would go to."

Nicholson said even though TSA does have a lot of equipment in storage, 95 percent of the dollar value of all the equipment the agency owns is deployed in the field to airports.

"That tells me that we do have our most expensive, which we generally think of as our most impactful technology, out in the field," he said.

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