A TSA management crackdown on lax or improper screening at Newark Liberty International Airport has resulted dozens of agency employees’ being taken off the job for retraining or discipline, according to TSA and union officials.
To pick up the slack, sources say, the agency has had to call in replacement screeners from outside Newark Liberty, a so-called 9/11 airport with a history of high-profile security breaches and leadership problems.
TSA officials have been trying for years to improve Newark’s security screening but its lapses have remained a continuing frustration, and at times an embarrassment, for the agency. The latest effort to improve screening operations began last year under Newark Federal Security Director Donald Drummer, who had replaced Barbara Bonn Powell in April following a scathing internal analysis of the airport’s operations made by Powell’s own managers.
The analysis painted a bleak picture of poor performance and low morale that it blamed largely on inadequate training.
Word of the crackdown surfaced late in January, a month after a baggage screener was observed sending two checked bags to be loaded onto an aircraft without hand-searching them, despite their having raised red flags while being X-rayed. At the time, TSA and union officials said six other screeners had been taken off the job for re-training.
As of this week, however, a TSA and a union source said the number of screeners taken off line for retraining had grown to at least 45. A third source, also with the TSA, put the number at around "two dozen screeners."
Also, sources said, the TSA had brought in at least 15 members of an elite corps of roving TSA employees used to fill gaps around the country. The officials quoted for this story declined to be identified because they were talking about security matters.
"We have 45 officers on administration duty statues and the investigation is still on going," said a TSA supervisor in Newark. "We also, as of Saturday, have 15 officers from the National Deployment Force at our airport."
TSA Administrator John Pistole was at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday to launch the airport’s PreCheck expedited screening program. Asked about the Newark situation, Pistole declined to confirm any specifics, but addressed the crackdown in general terms.
"Anytime there’s an allegation about any type of improper screening or, clearly, misconduct, we takes those allegations seriously," Pistole said. "We initiate an immediate internal investigation to assess those allegations, and then, as appropriate, once our investigation is concluded, we take appropriate disciplinary action, which, if warranted, could lead up to dismissal. And so, without commenting on the specifics, that’s where we are."
Yesterday, an official of the American Federal Employees Association, the screeners’ union, released a statement on behalf of the transportation security officers, or TSO’s, taken off of screening duty at Newark Liberty. "AFGE has been in contact with the officers involved and are aware of the situation at Newark," said the official, Mecca Scott, an AFGE national organizer and former Newark TSA screener. "The TSO’s involved have and will continue to fully cooperate with TSA to fully clear up this matter. In the meantime, TSOs have been reassigned to administrative duties."
Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the TSA, released a statement on the Newark situation yesterday.
"TSA is committed to ensuring the highest level of security for the traveling public. We are also committed to continuing to improve the work environment for our officers," the statement said. "Due to the ongoing investigation it would be premature to comment further at this time."