Carry On: Staff Cuts at TSA

The TSA cut its staff for several reasons: Its budget was slashed, it overhired, and some of those hires were convicted felons

The Transportation Security Agency, a federal agency developed after 9/11 and charged with protecting the traveling public by air, land and sea, will eliminate 6,000 airport screener positions

more than 10 percent of its workforceby the end of this year. During the summer months, the TSA will need to do more with less. Much less. If the president's proposed 2004 budget passes, the TSA is facing a whopping $1 billion budget cut. In 2001, when the airline screener hiring process began, Congress capped the staff at 45,000. However, the TSA exceeded this number, hiring 55,600 screeners, 10,000 of whom were hired under the guise of "temporary contracts." TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis says these 10,000 employees were hired when the White House federalized airports, developed the TSA and demanded increased security.

The cuts have left some wondering how the agency can continue to secure U.S. airports and travelers while juggling port security and screening cargo and passenger ships as they enter the country's 361 major ports.

In response to airport safety concerns, Davis insists that passenger safety will not be compromised. While it's true that these cuts will mean fewer checkpoints, she says the same number of screeners will be at each point. Davis also notes that current screeners have had more intensive security training than their predecessors, who were employed by private screening companies. Now that the TSA is in charge, training is consistent airport to airport.

But not everyone shares Davis's confidence. In a May 7 airport security report by the American Association of Airport Executives, the group noted that "the cuts are planned for major airports, which could present an increased security risk during the busier summer travel season."

What the TSA is also doing, according to the congressional testimony of Adm. James Loy, TSA administrator, is weeding out the employees who are criminals. "We have terminated 1,208 screeners for unsuitability reasons, most of which were revealed on background checks," he says. In all fairness, the TSA received 1.6 million job applications for the position of airport screener. One might say it's acceptable that a few felons slipped through.

Loy, in his testimony, cites a grim statistic. In Los Angeles, of the 2,500 screeners currently employed, about 508 have "the potential of a criminal record," meaning the TSA has to further investigate them.

The TSA had an enormous task: to develop a system that would protect all airline passengers. But the organization has some work to do. And the cuts aren't going to help.

Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic leader, sees the TSA budget cut as a sign that the government is not committed to homeland security. According to Pelosi, "We need to do more than talk about homeland security. There is a huge unmet need in funding for homeland security. The cut to the TSA is just the latest example of the Bush administration saying one thing on homeland security and doing another."

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