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Senators Criticize Airport Screener Exam as Too Easy

Times Staff Writer

Key senators Thursday scolded the federal airport security agency for using what an investigator called “simply inane” questions to test luggage screeners -- and for giving away many answers beforehand.

“Notwithstanding that some questions addressed information material to the [training] course, it is extremely disturbing that most ... were rehearsed before the final examination, that a number

Schumer, head of a Democratic task force on homeland security, said the “ludicrousness” of the testing compromised the improved safeguards for passengers that Congress had sought when it created the Transportation Security Administration after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Having a ridiculously easy test undercuts that goal at the knees,” Schumer said.

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A senior Republican agreed. “If true, the practices identified in this investigation are outrageous and threaten to undermine the progress we have made in securing our skies,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), an author of the legislation that created the TSA.

Some items on the test for checked-baggage screeners evoked the classic driver’s license exam question that asks what to do at a stop sign. One multiple-choice question asked why it was important to screen bags for bombs.

Among the options: “The ticking timer could worry passengers”; batteries in the bomb “could leak and damage other passenger bags”; and the bomb’s wiring “could cause a short to the aircraft wires.”

The correct answer: Bombs “can cause a loss of life, property and aircraft.”

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TSA spokesman Brian Turmail said that test is no longer used, and that screeners also had to pass a hands-on exam to demonstrate that they could find explosives using the government’s detection machines.

“Sure, they had to pass a multiple-choice test, but that’s not what got them the job,” Turmail said. “What got them the job is that they demonstrated the ability to successfully operate screening devices to find explosives.”

Although there is agreement that security has improved since the TSA took over from the airlines last year, the agency has had a series of fumbles.

Botched background checks allowed some people with criminal records to be hired as federal screeners, and government officials say tens of millions of dollars were wasted in the rush to meet congressional deadlines.

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Lawmakers also are concerned that the more than 48,000 screeners employed by the $5-billion-a-year agency still miss a large share of mock bombs and weapons in tests of airport checkpoints by undercover agents.

The inspector general’s investigation of the training was prompted by a Newsday article this year, which reported that screeners being trained to operate bomb-detection equipment at New York’s La Guardia Airport were being given the answers to questions in advance of testing.

The TSA investigated first, interviewing instructors who taught at airports around the country and screeners who worked at five major airports, none in California.

Many of the screeners confirmed to the TSA that their final exam questions were identical or very similar to questions and answers in open-book quizzes given in class. But the agency found “no misconduct” by instructors because they were simply following a required curriculum.

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Ervin said he found it “incongruous” that the TSA’s investigation failed to explore underlying concerns about the adequacy of its curriculum. The agency “failed to recognize or acknowledge the extremely significant questions raised by its chosen method of training and testing,” Ervin wrote in his report.

Separately, several screeners at California airports have previously told The Times that they consider bomb detection to be a weakness in their training.

Ervin suggested that the TSA’s curriculum was geared to quantity, not quality, by making it easy for prospective screeners to pass at a time when they were sorely needed.

Since meeting a Dec. 31, 2002, deadline for screening all checked luggage, the agency has laid off about 6,000 of its screeners.

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“TSA’s approach maximized its capacity to push students through school and certify them as screeners of checked baggage for assignment to airports,” Ervin said. “By prepping the students for the final examination questions, however, TSA lost the opportunity to fully evaluate the student’s mastery and comprehension of the course material.”

In security parlance, bombs are known as IEDs -- improvised explosive devices -- an acronym students would have learned in class. Another question on the TSA final exam asked: “What type of weapons are explosives detection systems ... designed to detect?”

Correct answer: “Improvised explosive devices [IEDs].”


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