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Highlights

The Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) most visible layer of commercial aviation security is the screening of airline passengers at airport checkpoints, where travelers and their carry-on items are screened for explosives and other dangerous items by transportation security officers (TSO). Several revisions made to checkpoint screening procedures have been scrutinized and questioned by the traveling public and Congress in recent years. For this review, GAO evaluated (1) TSA's decisions to modify passenger screening procedures between April 2005 and December 2005 and in response to the alleged August 2006 liquid explosives terrorist plot, and (2) how TSA monitored TSO compliance with passenger screening procedures. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed TSA documents, interviewed TSA officials and aviation security experts, and visited 25 airports of varying sizes and locations.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Transportation Security Administration To help strengthen TSA's evaluation of proposed modifications to passenger checkpoint screening SOPs and TSA's ability to justify its decisions to implement or not implement proposed SOP modifications, in the March 2007 report that contained sensitive security information, GAO stated that the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for TSA to develop sound evaluation methods, when possible, that can be used to assist TSA in determining whether proposed procedures would achieve their intended result, such as enhancing TSA's ability to detect prohibited items and suspicious persons and freeing up existing TSO resources that could be used to implement proposed procedures when operationally testing proposed SOP modifications.
Closed - Not Implemented
Following the release of GAO's report, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that it planned to continue to perform operational testing of proposed Standard Operating Procedure modifications, when practicable, as a method for determining impact on passenger checkpoint security effectiveness and efficiency. TSA stated that it was committed to using sound methodological techniques when conducting these operational tests. As of April 2011, TSA had provided us with documentation associated with two operational tests conducted since our report was issued in April 2007 - one of proposed X-ray procedures and another of proposed explosives trace detection (ETD) procedures. For the first operational test, TSA sought to determine whether the three proposed x-ray screening procedures would improve passenger throughput and increase the number of images Transportation Security Officers could view in an hour, and TSA collected and analyzed the necessary data to answer this question. For the second operational test, TSA described the specific ETD procedure that would be tested, identified at which airports the test would take place, and the duration of the test. However, TSA was not able to provide documentation that explains the intended purpose of the proposed ETD procedure or the type of data TSA plans to collect or how the data will be used to decide whether to implement the procedure. Considering that TSA was not able to provide such documentation, there is no evidence that TSA designed this operational test in a way that is consistent with our recommendation. Given that TSA used a sound evaluation methodology for one of its operational tests, but not the other, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.
Transportation Security Administration To help strengthen TSA's evaluation of proposed modifications to passenger checkpoint screening SOPs and TSA's ability to justify its decisions to implement or not implement proposed SOP modifications, in the March 2007 report that contained sensitive security information, GAO stated that the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for TSA to generate and maintain documentation to include, at minimum, the source, intended purpose, and reasoning behind decisions to implement or not implement proposed modifications for future proposed SOP modifications that TSA senior leadership determines are significant.
Closed - Implemented
According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a number of substantive changes to passenger screening procedures have been considered since GAO issued its final report. TSA reported that the Office of Security Operations initiated a process to track information on all substantive proposed changes to passenger screening procedures. TSA provided matrices from October 2007 and November 2008 that were used to track the status of proposed checkpoint screening procedures. The matrices include a source column, which, consistent with our recommendation, identifies who recommended the proposed change; an issue column, which explains the potential need for and purpose of the proposed change; and a "notes" or "disposition" column, which includes TSA's rationale for implementing or not implementing the proposed procedure. By tracking this type of information for proposed checkpoint screening procedures, TSA has implemented our recommendation.

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