U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today led an oversight hearing with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator Peter Neffenger, during which the committee examined what steps are being taken to secure the nation’s surface and air transportation modes in the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium.
Last week during a visit to the Sioux Falls Regional Airport, Thune met with representatives from the airport, Federal Bureau of Investigation, TSA, Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office, and Sioux Falls Police Department to discuss measures that are being implemented locally.
Remarks (as prepared for delivery):
“On March 22nd, terrorists associated with ISIS detonated three bombs in Brussels, two at an airport, and one in a busy metro car. Thirty-five people, including four Americans, were killed in this cowardly attack.
“The victims of these attacks remain in our thoughts and prayers.
“The threat from ISIS, al-Qaeda and their sympathizers is real, and we must ensure sound policies are in place to enhance security and prevent these deadly attacks.
“This hearing will focus on the efforts of the Transportation Security Administration to secure surface transportation modes. In light of the attacks in Brussels, however, we will also address the related challenge of safeguarding the areas of airports outside passenger screening checkpoints.
“Administrator Neffenger, I understand that you were, by chance, in the Brussels airport at the time of the attacks.
“I hope you will share your thoughts on the horrific events there, and how we can prevent and prepare for similar threats. I understand your written testimony focuses on rail, transit, and pipeline security, but I hope you will also share with us additional information on how we can improve airport security.
“The TSA must learn from past attacks and also look forward to new and emerging threats. Sadly, it is clear that terrorists associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS have identified passenger rail and transit systems as soft targets.
“It is critical that we not neglect these vital parts of our transportation system as we look for ways to improve security.
“Understandably, these open systems cannot be secured in the same way as our aviation network. Nevertheless, some of the techniques we utilize in the aviation network apply to surface assets, as well areas of the airport on the street side of the checkpoint.
“While our best tool in combating terrorist attacks continues to be good intelligence, TSA has adopted a multi-layer process to identify threats and mitigate security concerns.
“Former Administrator John Pistole strongly promoted the risk-based allocation of TSA’s resources. I look forward to hearing from the Administrator today about his views on the risk-based analysis of threats. TSA cannot and should not be at every bus stop, or every train station.
“The agency must leverage its relationships with state and local officials and address the most significant threats with its limited resources.
“Visible security efforts can also make a difference. Explosives Detection Canines and police presence can deter both terrorist threats and criminal activity. TSA’s support of these programs is invaluable. I’d like to hear more about how these teams are allocated among airports and other transportation systems.
“TSA is also charged with protecting freight transportation networks including ports, freight railroads, and pipeline infrastructure. These critical infrastructure networks are crucial components of our nation’s economy.
“TSA receives high marks from railroad and pipeline operators who work with the agency to identify and mitigate threats. Public-private security partnerships between the agency and operators have been valuable in hardening these networks.
“On the aviation front, Ranking Member Nelson and I have been leading oversight at the Commerce Committee of problems some airports have had in successfully managing security credentials.
“This oversight led the Committee to approve bipartisan legislation, S. 2361, the Airport Security Enhancement and Oversight Act, to tighten vetting of airport workers, so that those with ties to terrorists and histories of serious criminal behavior do not access sensitive airport areas.
“Unfortunately, in the current system, such individuals are not always captured.
“Some of the perpetrators in the deadly attacks in Brussels were previously known to authorities as criminals, and U.S. terrorism experts believe that ISIS is recruiting criminals to join its ranks in Europe.
“As we work to address the threat of an aviation insider helping terrorists, criminals who break laws for financial gain and those with histories of violence are a good place to start.
“Ensuring that airport workers with security credentials are trustworthy is especially important considering that an ISIS affiliate is believed to have killed 224 people on a Russian passenger plane leaving Egypt with, experts suspect, the help of an airport employee.
“The Committee has also approved legislation, H.R. 2843, the TSA PreCheck Expansion Act, which would help expand participation in the TSA PreCheck application program by developing private-sector partnerships and capabilities to vet and enroll more individuals.
“As a result, more vetted passengers would receive expedited airport screening, which would get passengers through security checkpoints more quickly and ensure that they do not pose the kind of easy target that ISIS suicide bombers exploited at the Brussels airport.
“I believe both of these important measures can and should advance in the full Senate this week.
“Administrator Neffenger, thank you for being here today. We need strong leadership and decisive action to address this terrorist threat. You are faced with a great challenge of getting it right every time, when a terrorist just needs one opportunity. I look forward to hearing from you about how TSA is working to meet that challenge.”