U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today pressed both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) for answers and future plans regarding the removal of passenger screening units at three North Dakota airports. Heitkamp questioned DHS Deputy Secretary Jane Hole Lute at a Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) hearing Thursday as well as wrote a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole on the topic.
The TSA is moving full-body passenger scanning machines from airports in Bismarck, Minot, and Grand Forks and transferring them to larger airports to ensure all scanning machines nationwide meet passenger privacy standards. Heitkamp would like the TSA to immediately begin the process of acquiring additional full-body scanners for these North Dakota airports, as well as other facilities which are also experiencing tremendous growth.
"Our airports are experiencing double-digit growth," said Heitkamp, a member of the HSGAC committee. "Looking out for North Dakotans will always be my No. 1 concern, and DHS and TSA need to have a concrete strategy to ensure safety and security in our state and the rest of the nation. I will continue to engage with these agencies until I am satisfied that they have good policy in place on this issue."
Below is the full letter Senator Heitkamp sent to TSA Administrator Pistole:
March 21, 2013
The Honorable John Pistole
Transportation Security Administration
601 South 12th Street
Arlington, VA 20598-0100
Dear Administrator Pistole,
I request that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) immediately begin an acquisition process to purchase currently available full-body passenger scanners for airports which had scanners transferred to higher-traffic facilities. The priority for this acquisition should be airports experiencing rapid growth since such facilities are more likely to face increased short-term security risks and challenges.
While TSA has responded to requirements in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (P.L. 112-95), I feel your agency has erred in its overall handling of the situation caused by the inability of some passenger scanners to meet privacy standards. For example, three airports in my state of North Dakota, which have either lost or will lose passenger scanners, experienced at least 16 percent growth 2012 - for Minot the increase was 49 percent - and are continuing to experience high growth in 2013. I am concerned that such rapid growth makes it impractical to effectively judge whether alternate security methods are enough without the best-possible security technology.
While I am not suggesting that North Dakota airports deserve passenger scanners at the expense of ensuring such machines are in place at our nation's busiest airports, I do have serious concerns that TSA intends to wait until next-generation machines complete development and field testing before acquiring additional scanners. While the next-generation scanners will offer improved resolution (Tier II) and reduce threats, they are not yet available and the timeline for their availability is unclear. Furthermore, I have learned that the currently available scanners have the capability to be reprogrammed to attain Tier II status. This mitigates the long-term security impact of deploying the currently available machines.
I understand that there are difficulties associated with purchasing currently available scanners, such as a lack of a current purchasing contract. However, the lack of these scanners at airports experiencing high growth presents potential national security risks that outweigh any administrative challenges your agency may face.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this request with you further, either by phone or in person. If your staff has additional questions on this issue, please contact Eric Bursch on my staff at 202-224-9850.
United States Senate