The head of the TSA told US House lawmakers that the diversion of agency personnel to the US-Mexico border “will have no effect on aviation security whatsoever,” adding, “We have baseline aviation security that we do not go below.”

In remarks made during a June 25 hearing of the House Oversight Committee held to discuss TSA security vulnerabilities, TSA administrator David Pekoske reported that the agency has deployed less than 100 transportation security officers (TSO) to the Southern border, all of whom are volunteers.

“Whenever we decide that a volunteer is able to deploy, we take a very careful look at the airport from which these agents are deploying to make sure that we can mitigate the risks at that airport and also to manage throughput for all the passengers going through ... I have to balance the risk at the Southern border with the need to keep airports staffed,” Pekoske said.

Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) said the agency has diverted nearly 200 employees total to the border from more than 50 airports and agency headquarters—a figure that also includes supervisors, inspectors and other personnel, in addition to 172 Federal Air Marshals. He said TSA told the Committee in a June 21 letter that an additional 294 employees have been approved to make the trip to the border in coming weeks.

“On one hand, TSA has dozens of security vulnerabilities that have languished for years, and the administration is asking Congress for 700 more TSA screeners to handle huge increases in air travel traffic,” Cummings said. “Yet on the other hand, the administration is taking more than 350 of these critical TSA employees, diverting them away from their primary responsibilities securing our nation’s airways, and sending them to the border. And many more may be sent.” 

The Trump Administration has been urging Congress to approve emergency supplemental funding to bolster the agencies that have been forced to divert resources to address the situation on the US-Mexico border. Without additional funding, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which houses TSA and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), has said it may be forced to make additional program cuts, adding to the strain on airport wait times. An emergency funding bill that would send $4.5 billion to address the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border has been approved by the House Appropriations Committee and is set to be considered this week by the full chamber.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on June 25 also advanced a measure to send $4.59 billion to augment the agencies responding to the surge in migrant arrivals at the border. 

DHS deputy assistant inspector general (IG) Donald Bumgardner told the Committee the IG has conducted four covert tests of TSA operations since 2014 that have identified security vulnerabilities related to human error, unclear procedures and technological limitations that contribute to security weakness.

Bumgardner said that, although TSA has taken action to implement many of the IG’s security-related recommendations, 39 have not been implemented; of those, 17 recommendations have remained open since FY2017 or earlier. Those 17 recommendations relate to testing of screening equipment; Pre-Check vetting and screening operations; implementing a risk-based screening strategy; and developing a budget process that allocates resources according to risk.

Chairman Cummings also announced plans to introduce a new bill called the “Covert Testing and Risk Mitigation Improvement Act” with House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) that would “establish standards for covert testing and require TSA to track and report its progress in vulnerabilities as part of its annual budget submission to Congress.”

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@aviationweek.com