Senators grill security post nominee

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Dec. 20, 2001 at 2:13 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- Members of the Senate Commerce Committee wasted little time Thursday in supporting the Bush administration's nominee to head the new Transportation Security Administration, but made it clear there can be no backsliding on deadlines for new aviation security measures.

President Bush nominated John Magaw, a longtime federal law-enforcement official currently working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to lead the TSA.

The agency, taking shape following last month's passage of the aviation security bill, will oversee airport security screeners and air marshals, as well as security efforts at U.S. rail, bus and seaport operations.

Every committee member present at the hearing supported the nomination, which could reach the full Senate before it adjourns for the holidays.

Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.V., who chaired the hearing, wasted no time in telling both Magaw and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that the deadlines created by the bill, such as mandatory screening of all checked baggage by mid-January, are not negotiable with the airlines.

"We've given you the tools and the money to do a job," Rockefeller said. "The one thing we cannot accept is the phrase 'It can't be done,' and that's the one thing where we'll be very nettlesome in the public interest."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Magaw and Mineta legislators never heard the word "couldn't" from DOT representatives as the law was being drafted. The TSA must maintain control of the process and prevent the airline lobby from exerting undue influence, McCain said.

Several committee members reminded Magaw of poor previous performance by the Federal Aviation Administration, with softening of established rules and delays in implementing new ones. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., suggested Magaw could use the TSA's statutory authority to bypass traditional rulemaking and get changes made quickly.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., not a committee member but sitting in on the hearing, was the only negative voice concerning Magaw's appointment. Prior to his FEMA work, Magaw headed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms during the period immediately following the agency's fiascoes at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

Specter said Magaw showed poor judgment in defending the ATF's work at Ruby Ridge, after congressional hearings and court cases showed agents acted unlawfully in entrapping Randy Weaver on weapons violations and triggering events that killed Weaver's wife and son.

Magaw replied by saying the supportive remarks came shortly after he took the reins at the agency, and his point of view changed after mistakes became obvious during further review of the facts. Specter was gratified by Magaw's statements at the hearing.

While Magaw would control all U.S. transportation security efforts, the committee's questions focused on the need for better aviation security.

Rockefeller asked how the TSA would ensure screeners are treated fairly while also maintaining a top-flight workforce. Magaw said he would create an atmosphere of "compassionate oversight," working with screeners to deal with issues such as conflicts between working hours and family needs. Performance standards would be strictly enforced, he said, with the agency dismissing those who don't measure up.

In order to staff the new agency quickly and properly, Magaw suggested having retired law-enforcement agents perform background checks, a procedure he used while heading the U.S. Secret Service. Such an approach would free up full-time agents for more important duties, he said, while cutting the lag time for background checks to less than a week.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas., asked how the agency would deal with the age limit for air marshals, currently 35 years unless the person has law-enforcement or military experience. Magaw said those exemptions will help in the short term, and he intends to create a career track where security screeners could be promoted into the air marshal field, ensuring a steady stream of qualified people.

Wyden pressed Magaw on the feasibility of several deadlines the TSA faces. Magaw said he and Mineta would explore every option, human and technological, to meet the requirement of screening every piece of checked baggage starting Jan. 18. Magaw also expressed confidence the TSA would meet a Dec. 31, 2002, deadline for installing explosives detection systems at every U.S. airport to provide total baggage screening.

Wyden noted the TSA's mission is as much to restore public confidence as it is to increase security, and asked how citizens would be informed of the agency's progress. Magaw said once he's confirmed, he'll bring together airlines, airports and other transportation providers to devise an overall public-relations strategy.

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