Background checks by the Transportation Security Administration cleared 73 people for access to secure airport areas even though their names were on a federal database of possible terrorists, a senior official told a Senate committee Tuesday.
The latest security lapse came to light as John Roth, the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, delivered a scathing report on problems and blunders at the long-troubled agency.
They include inadequate baggage screening, hiring of convicted criminals, faulty records, questionable spending, and narcotics smuggling and human trafficking by TSA employees.
"We remain deeply concerned about [the TSA's] ability to execute its important mission," Roth told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The hearing was held a week after Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, reassigned the acting administrator of the TSA following reports that auditors from Roth's office had slipped mock explosives and weapons past TSA checkpoints 67 out of 70 times.
The White House has nominated Peter V. Neffenger, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, to take the helm of the TSA. Neffenger is expected to win approval from the same committee after a confirmation hearing Wednesday.
In the latest case, Roth said, his investigators had found the names of 73 airport workers "with possible terrorism-related information" in a classified federal database that the TSA could not normally access.
"TSA acknowledged that these individuals were cleared for access to secure airport areas despite representing a potential security threat," Roth testified.
Roth said the risk was discovered after he asked the National Counterterrorism Center to check more than 900,000 active aviation workers against a classified intelligence database called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. It contains confirmed and unconfirmed information about people with potential terrorist links.
The search found 73 matches of people cleared for access to secure areas. Investigators immediately gave the TSA the names that raised concerns, Roth said. He did not say whether they included any TSA employees, when the discovery was made, or whether any of the people posed an actual threat.
The names of workers hired by airlines and airport vendors are normally checked against a more narrow, unclassified database that is maintained by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center.
Last year, then-TSA Administrator John Pistole sent a letter to the FBI asking that TSA background checks also include a search of the bigger, more inclusive database, Roth said. But the FBI and the intelligence community have not acted, he said.
"I can't imagine the FBI would not have moved on this with the utmost haste," Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said at the hearing. "The bureaucracy can't hold this up."
The fact that dozens of workers with potential links to terrorism could access secure areas of airports "really does give you pause," Ayotte said, "because it really only takes one" to create havoc.
Roth also repeatedly criticized the TSA's use of PreCheck, which allows expedited screening of vetted passengers. He said the TSA allows rapid screening of nearly half the flying public, often by randomly pulling people out of regular security lanes.
In one case, he said, a convicted felon who was "a former member of a domestic terrorist group" was granted expedited screening even though the traveler was "sufficiently notorious" that a TSA screener recognized him.
The screener "notified his supervisor, who directed him to take no further action and allow the traveler to proceed through the PreCheck lane," Roth said. He did not identify the passenger.