TSA's 'gross mismanagement' persists at cost of safety, employees say

TSA whistleblowers told a House Committee that the security agency is run by underqualified "bullies," with practices that leave employees disgruntled and travelers at risk.

Jeff Roberson/AP
Transportation Security Administration inspectors monitor a security checkpoint at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport earlier this month in St. Louis.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) still suffers from mismanagement and a negative workplace culture, three employees testified in a Congressional committee Wednesday, saying that unqualified and punitive administrators' practices put travelers' security at risk. 

"The refusal to address or to hold senior leaders accountable is paralyzing this agency," TSA program manager Mark Livingston told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, according to The Washington Post. 

"No one who reports issues is safe at TSA," Mr. Livingston added, saying that employees are less likely to tell supervisors about security problems out of fear of retaliation – a chain of intimidation that runs through the agency. 

Livingston testified that he was turned away and disciplined for reporting issues to his superiors.

"They reduced me two pay grades," he said. "This action was intended to publicly humiliate me. They sought to make an example of me." In February, Livingston filed a lawsuit against the TSA claiming "retaliation and discrimination" by the agency

Jay Brainard, the TSA's federal security director in Kansas, also testified that unqualified higher-ups' behavior adversely affected TSA activity.

Senior executives with little relevant experience have long "run amok and make decisions or conduct themselves in an unethical manner which eroded our ability to complete the security mission and grossly compromised the integrity of our agency," he told Committee members, according to the Courthouse News Service. Mr. Brainard added that the bosses were "the biggest bullies in government."

Assistant federal security director Andrew Rhoades agreed that the TSA suffers from "gross mismanagement" along with operational and monetary waste, according to The Hill.

Brainard and Mr. Rhoades are being internally reviewed by the TSA, as the Post reported. 

House Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah reported that "Many airports are complaining that TSA is getting worse, not better," and said that more than 100 of the agency’s screeners quit their jobs weekly. 

"They really don't like working there," he said.

Independent reviews corroborate the TSA's reputation as a hard place to work. The Partnership for Public Service's annual ranking of government workplaces listed the TSA as the eighth-worst, and has rated it in the bottom quartile of its index since it was first reviewed in 2005.  

All three witnesses agreed that the TSA's new director, Peter Neffenger, is making progress in righting the wrongs of previous TSA leaders, although they said more turnover was needed in the administration. 

"The same people who broke this agency are the same people who are essentially still running it," Brainard said.

"He has the right mindset and the energy to change it, but he's got to put different people in different positions," Livingston said of Mr. Neffenger. "He's not going to get there with the same team."

Neffenger is set to appear before the committee in the coming weeks.

Its members say change at the TSA will most likely have to come through its leadership, rather than a legislative process.

"It probably will be up to the administrator," said Subcommittee on Government Operations chairman Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida. "There are people who are making it miserable, not doing things in the correct fashion."

Former TSA head Kip Hawley has argued that TSA employees need "flexibility and rewards for initiative" to match their accountability. 

"No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers. We need to leverage that ability," he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2012, arguing that officers should have more "discretion to interact with passengers and to work in looser teams throughout airports."

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