Aviation security remains in the spotlight

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Confusion, confessions, and condemnation marked hearings by two Senate committees on the same day over aviation security and the Transportation Security Administration.

Erroll Southers’ withdrawal of his name to be administrator of the TSA added to the uncertainty of government actions following the embarrassing failure to recognize and stop the terrorist boarding the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.

While the hearings focused primarily on airline security, members of both committees were impatient with TSA, Homeland Security, and communication between varying government agencies, causing aviation interests to anxiously await congressional action.

Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, was particularly pointed in his comments. “We need to harden our defenses and evaluate if we are doing everything we can to meet the evolving Al Qaeda terrorist threat,” he said. Ending his opening remarks, he expressed disappointment in the withdrawal of Southers as TSA administrator. Confirmation for this position comes under Rockefeller’s committee. Rockefeller has consistently stated he is concerned over the security threats he believes general aviation poses.

In another committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said some elements of the U.S. security system are not working as they should and must be fixed.

Witnesses included Janet Napolitano, administrator of the Department of Homeland Security, who tried to clarify her comment after the Christmas Day threat that “the system worked well.” Defending DHS, she testified that the agency “is a consumer of intelligence information” and must pull all the information together.

Several witnesses confessed failure, but promised to straighten things out and communicate with others. There was a good deal of finger pointing, in effect admitting mistakes, but also saying some of those mistakes were because of the failures of other departments or agencies to communicate.

Much of the discussion at both hearings centered on the “failure of the system” to share information about terrorists, but one senator aimed the investigation to a more pointed direction. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the committee wanted to find out why there are screening and intelligent failures. “We’re not talking about systems,” he said, “we are talking about people.”

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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