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Lawmakers Criticize US Government Airport Screening

US LAX airport
US LAX airport
On the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States, two Homeland Security subcommittees in the House of Representatives held hearings Tuesday to gauge the progress in keeping terrorists out of the United States. One of the panels criticized the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, for inconveniencing airline passengers with unpopular screening procedures that might not address current threats.

The Transportation Security Subcommittee issued a report that concludes the TSA has been too reactive, imposing screening procedures that respond to past terrorist plots and not doing enough to anticipate future threats. Some of the procedures the TSA has implemented since 2001, including pat-downs of passengers and the introduction of screening machines that produce detailed images of travelers' bodies, have outraged some airline passengers and are seen as a nuisance by others.

Geoff Freeman, the chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association, a trade organization, testified at the hearing. He said the TSA needs to focus on more risk management and be more sensitive so as not to drive away airline customers.

"A 2010 survey found that travelers would take two to three more flights per year, if the hassles in security screening were reduced," Freeman said.

The subcommittee report says the TSA has not adequately explained why it is using invasive screening procedures, and that it would help if Americans understood what threats are being addressed. The report criticizes the fact that the TSA's workforce continues to grow as airline passenger traffic in the United States is declining.

The TSA says that since 2001, it has been mandated by law to screen air travelers appropriately so that certain items and persons prohibited from flying are kept off commercial airliners.

Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas defended TSA employees, pointing out that there has not been another catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001.

"We recognize that TSA has been on the front lines, not perfect, but ready for work," Jackson said.

At another Homeland Security subcommittee, Republican chairwoman Candace Miller said progress has been made in the process of issuing visas and security screening. But she said there is more work to be done, referring to the foiled airliner bombing attack in Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.

"Without question, we have made enormous progress limiting the ability of terrorists to travel to the U.S. since 9/11 [i.e., September 11, 2001]. But certainly the incident of the Christmas Day bomber [in 2009] -- that demonstrated that we still had some significant gaps in our visa vetting system," Miller said.

Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar called on all government agencies working to protect Americans from terrorist attacks to find the right balance between security and fostering travel and tourism in the United States.