Keeping Our Skies Secure: Oversight of the TSA

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Administrator David Pekoske
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Wednesday, September 5, 2018
As Prepared for Delivery


Good morning Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Nelson, and distinguished Members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me here today to testify about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the work we are doing to keep our transportation system secure despite persistent threats. TSA appreciates the support of this Committee as we carry out our vital security mission. We are grateful for the constructive relationship TSA enjoys with each Member and are confident, that if enacted, the TSA-related provisions potentially to be included within H.R. 4, the FAA Reauthorization Act, will further strengthen the Agency’s ability to execute its mission.

Next week, the entire nation will reflect upon the 9/11 attacks. While aviation security operations have advanced significantly in 17 years, we still face determined adversaries. The threat to aviation remains high and terrorists remain intent on attacking civil aviation. We also cannot ignore the real threat to the surface transportation system, as evidenced by the 2017 attacks in New York City, London, Paris, and Barcelona. Last month’s vehicular attack outside of London’s House of Parliament and the intentional crashing of an airplane in the vicinity of the Seattle-Tacoma airport are recent reminders of the types of dangers we face every day.

We must remain vigilant in continually assessing vulnerabilities, identifying threats, and mitigating risks while ensuring massive volumes of passengers and commodities can move securely and efficiently through the transportation “system of systems.” That system is the lifeblood of our economy and way of life and one that requires all stakeholders to help protect it.

Since being confirmed as Administrator a little over a year ago, I have spent a significant amount of my time at the front lines of TSA, engaging with employees at all levels of the organization, and meeting with our partners. I have visited many airports; numerous transit infrastructure venues, to include train stations and operation control centers; met with rail, pipeline, and motor carrier operators and owners; and traveled abroad to gain greater perspective regarding the security challenges we face and to advance discussions on how we continue to raise the global baseline for transportation security.

Securing the Nation’s transportation system requires the collective efforts of all segments of our society; it is not something that the government can accomplish alone. As such, I recognize the critical importance of partnering with and actively including as many of our stakeholders in the process of developing transportation security solutions. This is why I value the opportunity to engage with stakeholders directly as well as through the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC), the DHS Critical Infrastructure Partnership Advisory Committee’s Transportation Systems Sector Coordinating Council, and other forums. In fact, later this month I will participate in a roundtable discussion with pipeline operators and government partners in Alaska to discuss the important topic of pipeline security.

In all of my encounters, I have observed a deep commitment to our shared mission to protect the nation’s transportation system to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce. This dedication is critically important because we face both multiple determined adversaries and a threat environment that remains complex, diverse, and persistent.

I am honored to be leading the 63,000 dedicated professionals who make up TSA’s workforce, share our core values of integrity, respect, and commitment, and provide security for millions of Americans using our transportation systems each and every day. I am also focused on ensuring we are prepared to address today’s risks and tomorrow’s threats. This challenge is compounded by increased user demand on the transportation system and passenger expectations for customized and seamless travel experiences. As it relates to air travel, my first year at TSA was the busiest in TSA history – with extremely busy spring and summer travel periods. Compared to the 771 million passengers screened in 2017, we are projected to screen more than 800 million passengers and crew this year. Of note, TSA has managed the nearly four percent annual passenger growth experienced over the last few years while only increasing the size of its Transportation Security Officer workforce at roughly half that rate each year as a result of funding limitations, which has impacted both training and morale. We have worked as efficiently as possible, are introducing more capable equipment (e.g., computed tomography (CT) screening systems), and are updating approaches for recruiting, retaining, and developing our personnel.

TSA’s continued success is contingent on our ability to rise to the challenge of outmatching a dynamic threat to our aviation and surface transportation systems. To be effective and efficient in a changing environment, TSA must continuously re-evaluate how it uses its resources and performs its mission.

First, quintessential to using our resources as effectively as possible is understanding where they can best be directed to address the greatest level of risk. TSA uses several risk-based programs, including QUIET SKIES, to inform a series of operational actions – such as whether to conduct enhanced screening at the checkpoint and when to assign Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) coverage.

These risk-based programs are critically important for our security. They are intelligence-based and designed to identify individuals who may pose a higher risk, so that TSA can take action to mitigate these security risks. We aggressively employ procedural and privacy safeguards and have robust review procedures within TSA and with the DHS Privacy Office, Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of the General Counsel. TSA’s intelligence-driven risk-based programs rely on passenger provided data and do not use race, color, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or parental status as a basis for operational decisions.

Second, every year as part of the federal budget process, TSA is charged with considering ways to create operational efficiencies. For example, as part of that deliberative process for the Fiscal Year 2020 budget request, TSA was required to respond to various budget scenarios and explain how limited resources would be allocated based on proposed funding levels. The possibility of eliminating security screening at low volume airports was one of many options discussed as part of the budget development process. Internal consideration of that option, however, did not constitute a decision. In fact, TSA decided not to propose that strategy for further consideration by the Department or Administration.

In short, we must not only continue to work hard, but we must also work smarter and more strategically. This is why it was a priority for me to issue guidance within my first year to explain to our work force, Congress, and our stakeholders how TSA would continue to improve the execution of our mission into the future. I did so via the publication of my “Administrator’s Intent” – a document that lays out my priorities for the Agency and is intended to be updated periodically—and the 2018-2026 TSA Strategy. Together, these structured documents ensure strategic alignment and a greater level of transparency.

The TSA Strategy ensures our focus on capability innovation and threat-informed, information-driven operations. My Administrator’s Intent explains how we will execute the strategy between now and 2020. The TSA Strategy and my Administrator’s Intent detail the three main strategic priorities for the organization and how we will accomplish them. Both are posted on our website for public review and transparency. The first priority is to improve security and safeguard the transportation system. Our second is to accelerate action. And the final priority is to commit to our people. These priorities reflect my focus on preserving frontline operations, quickly transitioning to new technologies, and creating efficiencies to optimize limited resources.

Improve Security and Safeguard the Transportation System

TSA’s operational environment requires robust partnerships and effective security operations across all modes of transportation. We strive to strengthen our operational approach through a proficient and professional workforce, more effective detection capabilities, enhanced intelligence and vetting, and better communication and coordination with stakeholders. Simultaneously, we also strive to improve the passenger experience.

For more than a year and in response to the evolving international aviation threat, TSA has mandated enhanced security requirements for all commercial flights to the United States. Those measures include enhanced screening of passengers and electronic devices and heightened security standards for aircraft and airports. These new security measures have been implemented at 280 last points of departure airports in over 105 countries. These airports service approximately 180 U.S. and foreign airlines transporting an average of 375,000 passengers on 2,100 flights daily.

In addition to raising the baseline for passenger aviation security, TSA has worked closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to “raise the bar” for cargo operations by requiring the use of the Air Cargo Advance Screening program for cargo on all flights destined for the United States. This allows CBP and TSA to target potential U.S. bound cargo before it is loaded aboard an aircraft, based on threat reporting, for a higher level of screening. As threats continue to evolve, TSA, in cooperation with partners world-wide, will work to improve intelligence sharing and standardize best practices, while also pursuing technological security advancements.

Domestically, TSA is also strengthening and expanding our security screening procedures and capabilities to address the dangers we face. We are working to expand participation in our TSA Pre✓® program through improved marketing and partnership. For instance, since January 2018, TSA announced that TSA Pre✓® expedited screening program would include eligible customers of certain airlines in addition to those already participating. The number of airlines participating in TSA Pre✓®stands at 54 domestic and international carriers representing more than 90 percent of passengers traveling to or within the U.S. TSA is also working with CBP to identify ways that we can better leverage and align the two DHS Trusted Traveler programs, Global Entry and TSA Pre✓®.

To manage risk and resources more effectively, TSA is exploring ways to further segment the passenger screening process through innovative applications of its screening capabilities, including passenger screening canines. As a result of increased appropriations, TSA has been able to procure additional canines from domestic and international sources to build the capacity needed to implement this option more broadly. Efforts like this will be designed to make the screening process more efficient, match procedures with level of risk, and improve the passenger screening experience. In short, TSA is striving to provide better security, faster.

Just as it is the case for passengers, knowing more about aviation workers and the air carrier population is a critical component of understanding the security risk associated with potential insider threats. TSA’s implementation of FBI’s RAP Back services, which provides recurrent vetting for those populations and automatic notification to airports and air carriers of new criminal activity, began in May 2016 at two airports and with one carrier. Today, RAP Back services have expanded to 132 airports and two airlines.

In addition to our aviation passenger screening mission, we continue to oversee the security of the surface transportation system. The interconnected, varied, and expansive scope of the surface transportation system creates unique security challenges that are best addressed by system owners and operators. TSA’s approach to surface transportation security reflects this reality and focuses on providing system owners and operators federal support through communication, coordination, and collaboration. On a daily basis, TSA assists surface stakeholders through conducting vulnerability assessments, analyzing security programs across the surface sector, from pipelines, to mass transit, to freight rail, to over-the-road bus entities, providing training and exercise support, executing collaborative law enforcement and security operations, and sharing intelligence information.

Additionally, TSA strives to keep pace with the fast-moving advancement of security technologies to address current and evolving threats by looking at emerging technologies, including from outside the transportation environment, to assess their potential applicability to the surface transportation environment. We work closely with surface transportation owners and operators to develop and deploy technology solutions to advance transit security through collaborative operational test beds for different modes of transportation (mass transit, highway motor carrier, pipeline, and freight rail). While TSA does not procure the technology for surface transportation operators and owners, our efforts are designed to assist with development of their technology requirements, to represent them in government technology forums, and to help inform their acquisition decision making process.

A good example of the results of this process received national attention recently. On August 14, 2018, Los Angeles County Metro announced that it had become the first transit system in the country to purchase passenger screening technology capable of detecting weapons and explosive devices on passengers. TSA and L.A. Metro had been testing the equipment since last year. The same detection system has also been tested by Amtrak at Penn Station in New York City and New Jersey Transit at Newark Penn Station in New Jersey. This technology would have been able to detect the improvised explosive device on the individual that attempted a suicide attackwhile walking from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bus terminal to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority train last year.

Accelerate Action

TSA is building a culture of innovation that can anticipate and rapidly counter the changing threats across the transportation system. Rapid development and deployment of technical or non-material solutions will enable TSA to continuously improve operations.

TSA’s Innovation Task Force, in partnership with stakeholders, has accelerated efforts to advance security technology. This year we expanded the use and testing of CT screening systems in numerous airports. We are grateful for the support of Congress, as well as CT equipment donated by American Airlines, that has enabled us to announce plans to expand testing of CT systems this year. Computed tomography technology allows TSA officers to more easily identify potential threats and in the future may eliminate the need for passengers to remove liquids, electronics and food items from carry-on passenger bags. This technology will significantly enhance the effectiveness of TSA’s security screening process while also improving the passenger experience. As such, the President’s Budget for fiscal year 2019 calls for deployment of CT systems nationwide beginning in 2019. I appreciate your support of this important technology enhancement.

TSA has also continued to work with airport and airline partners to deploy Automated Screening Lanes (ASL) to more airports. The ASLs are designed to improve the checkpoint screening process for travelers, including the ability for multiple passengers to divest their belongings at the same time. To date, thanks to Congressional support as well as donations from our airline and airport partners, there are over 140 lanes at more than a dozen airports, with additional deployments scheduled this year.

Additionally, TSA has made significant advancements with the deployment of biometric and identity technology to improve security and strengthen the identification process. We continue to test and expand the use of Credential Authentication Technology (CAT), which allows us to validate the security features of a passenger’s photo ID and match the information from the ID against our Secure Flight vetting system. Credential Authentication Technology is a cornerstone technology for TSA. Testing of CAT, which started with 17 systems at seven airports, has expanded to 42 active systems at 13 airports and we expect to award a contract in January 2019 for an additional 294 systems.

Finally, TSA has conducted tests of facial recognition technology at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Last month, TSA conducted further testing, in collaboration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. During the most recent testing, TSA used CBP’s traveler vetting systems to match facial images of international outbound passengers to photos in U.S. Government systems, such as photos obtained from passports or visa applications or taken at time of entry to the U.S., to verify a passenger’s identity. This technology could help TSA improve identity validation and verification, an essential component of intelligence- and risk-based screening. Such was the case last month, where the CBP facial recognition technology we are currently testing was used to identify an individual at Dulles airport trying to enter the U.S. using a passport other than his own.

Through embracing emerging technologies, leveraging agile processes, and continued collaboration efforts, TSA is positioning itself to keep pace with industry partners while advancing security across all modes of transportation. To that end, TSA has taken steps to formalize a strategic management process that aligns strategy and policy to operations by leveraging risk assessment capabilities to inform budgeting and investment decisions.

Commit to Our People

The most critical element impacting our ability to keep the transportation system secure is our workforce. TSA is wholly committed to its people and recognizes that our strategic success depends upon how well we attract, hire, train, develop, promote, and equip our workforce at all levels of the organization. Over the past two years, TSA has seen the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) Employee Engagement Index increase by seven points. In fact, TSA’s 2018 FEVS results that we just received several weeks ago reflect improvement on every index. We are encouraged by this progress and hopeful that the actions we are currently taking will continue these very positive trends.

Our workforce is comprised of professionals from many disciplines within TSA, to include Transportation Security Officers, FAMS, inspectors, vetting experts, international representatives, and mission support personnel. Earlier this summer, TSA announced a new comprehensive career progression plan for frontline employees. This plan is designed to foster career growth and reflect an expanded investment in our Transportation Security Officers. Through defined career paths and standardized processes, TSA will provide greater transparency and opportunity to recognize, reward, and promote those who consistently excel in their role. Complementing this effort, TSA is implementing a new Annual Proficiency Review process that focuses on improving and sustaining Transportation Security Officers’ ability to correctly perform security screening procedures through receiving real time feedback based on observations in a live screening environment. This approach represents a shift from performance remediation to a coaching model.

Concurrent with its Career Progression Plan, TSA is also working to institutionalize TSA training and a development roadmap for our workforce. Through these efforts, TSA is focused on making its outstanding cadre of Transportation Security Officers and Inspectors even more effective and proficient in carrying out their mission.

As a further reflection of TSA’s commitment to facilitate leadership development at all levels of the workforce and effective communication throughout our ranks, I recently created two Advisor positions on my direct staff that are being filled by a Supervisory Transportation Security Officer and a FAM. The role of these two leaders is to provide frontline input directly to me on policies, procedures, and initiatives. Whenever there is a major decision within TSA that impacts the frontline screening workforce, these TSO and FAMS advisors will be part of the discussion.


The future to which TSA aspires is ambitious. It requires accountable leadership. It requires the unique contributions of all members of our dedicated TSA workforce. It requires close collaboration with our partners to transform transportation security together on behalf of the American people. Noting such, I am confident that with the continued support of Congress and all of our stakeholders, TSA is well positioned to achieve the goals outlined in its Strategy.

Since TSA’s inception, it has functioned with the motto “Not on My Watch.” This has served as a powerful call to action for TSA but one that, not by intent, was limited. As security of our nation’s transportation system is a common objective for all segments of our society, it is one that is best achieved through a shared and complementary effort between government, industry, and the public. In short, to secure all modes of our transportation system requires an “All Hands On Deck”, collaborative approach. Consequently, TSA has adopted a new creed reflective of this fact. TSA hopes that its new motto, “Not on Our Watch”, will serve as a reminder of the collective effort, commitment and vigilance we must all share to protect our Homeland.

Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Nelson, and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. I am honored to serve in this capacity along with the dedicated men and women of TSA. I look forward to your questions.