WASHINGTON -- Government screeners every day confiscate four to five guns -- some of them loaded -- packed in carry-on luggage at the nation's airports, a sign that travelers "are not focused on the security protocols," the head of the Transportation Security Administration said Wednesday at a Senate hearing.
TSA Administrator John PIstole testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs about the state of aviation security 10 years after the TSA's creation in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. He confirmed the daily weapons haul in response to a point raised by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the committee, who noted a loaded gun was found Tuesday on a passenger at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn. "We face a determined foe," she said.
TSA officers have prevented more than 940 guns from getting on board planes at checkpoints nationwide this year alone. Pistole did not specify whether people caught trying to bring guns aboard aircraft did so with ill intent, were unaware that guns were prohibited, or had forgotten they had packed them.
"Your people are finding four or five weapons a day, and not in checked bags," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the committee. "Just think about what could be done to the other passengers. So what the TSA officers are doing is for the protection of the general public."
While Pistole was praised for helping keep firearms out of the skies, he fared less well when asked about other security issues. Collins questioned his response to reports of serious security breaches involving employees of a catering company at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
"Clearly, this is something we take seriously," Pistole said, adding that the TSA sent a team to Atlanta last month to investigate. "The bottom line, I don’t have all the facts on what happened." Pistole maintained that his agency has a "fairly robust system in place" to vet workers with access to secure areas behind airport checkpoints.
The committee brought up a recent ProPublica investigation that showed the government ignored concerns about cancer risks from exposure to radiation in airport X-ray scanners, known as backscatters.
Pistole pushed back against the report, insisting the amount of radiation emitted by the machines was one-thousandth of the amount emitted by a chest X-ray. "But we're concerned there is a perception they're not as safe as they could be," he said, adding that the TSA would conduct an independent study to determine the risks of the imaging machines.
The TSA administrator also reported preliminary results from a test of passenger "chat-downs" that ended last month at Boston's Logan International Airport, in which TSA agents had extended conversations with passengers to determine whether or not they were dangerous. Pistole said the pilot program showed an increased rate of detection of high-risk passengers, but that it will take more number crunching to know whether or not the data is statistically significant and the results can be replicated at other airports.
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