Trump budget eliminates three post-9/11 airport security programs

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WASHINGTON – The Trump administration wants to eliminate three airport security programs put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, diverting the money to help build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The White House budget released Thursday prioritizes “frontline border security” and President Donald Trump’s “commitment to construct a physical wall along the southern border.”

The proposal says that $80 million could be saved by cutting grants that pay for local police in airports, eliminating a program that sends uniformed armed officers to sweep public facilities, and ending the training for Transportation Security Administration officers in how to recognize unusual passenger behavior.

It would shift the burden for funding police in airports to state and local governments. TSA officers do not have police authority and must summon local officers when issues arise.

The budget document describes the three programs slated for elimination as “underperforming,” a description at odds with the assessment of a former TSA administrator and a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, parent agency to the TSA.

“These are important programs,” said the former DHS official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s hard to quantify it, because all of this is about risk. This is about security, so the more security elements we have in place, the more secure the traveling public in railroad stations and airports are going to be.”

John Pistole, the former FBI deputy director who headed the TSA from 2010 to 2014, said the TSA is in a better position to find ways to economize its efforts than the White House.

“If I were still administrator, I would say, give me a bottom line of how much you want to cut, and then let me work the agency and do some reductions that would not just be wholesale,” Pistole said. “What outcome are they trying to achieve other than just reduce the budget?”

Though the TSA frequently has been criticized on Capitol Hill, program cuts may face push back in Congress, where most members rely on airport security in their weekly trips to and from their districts.

The budget proposal does not appear to reduce the number of TSA officers assigned to airport security checkpoints. It increases the overall discretionary budget for the DHS by 6.8 percent, to more than $44 billion.

In addition to the 2 million passengers who pass through airports each day, the TSA is responsible for the security of 28 million passenger rail riders, 1.2 million trucking companies, 3,000 privately owned pipeline companies, 106 million ferry passengers, and 11 million cruise ship passengers, according to a TSA report in December.

“What has not changed is that terrorists still consider airlines and airports high-value targets,” former TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said in a report in December, shortly before he stepped down as administrator. “The U.S. air transportation system, especially passenger airplanes, remain a primary target of every global terrorist network. That has not changed since before 9/11 and will define the threat environment for years, maybe decades, to come.”

One program slated for elimination, at a savings of $57 million, according to an earlier budget document, is one that sends teams of armed uniformed TSA officers on random sweeps through airports and other modes of transportation. Commonly known as the VIPR program (for Visible Intermodel Prevention and Response teams), its intent is to create a highly-visible police presence.

For example, VIPR teams were deployed to Reagan National Airport, Dulles International Airport, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, Amtrak’s Union Station and The Washington Metro system to guard against terrorist attacks during Trump’s inauguration.

Pistole questioned the decision to eliminate VIPR teams.

“That, I believe, creates a vulnerability, but there’s no way of giving it any objective analysis to say, ‘Okay, if you eliminate VIPR teams, what does that do?” he said.

The former DHS official pointed out that “last year a bipartisan Congress doubled the number of VIPR teams, both in airports and in train stations.”

An additional $65 million, according to an earlier White House budget document, could be saved by eliminating the Behavior Detection Officer program. The value of the program was questioned by the Government Accountability Office in a 2013 report, but Pistole responded at that time that it provided a “crucial layer of security” that brought 2,116 passengers to the attention of law enforcement in 2012, resulting in 30 boarding denials and 183 arrests.

“They may see it as a luxury. I would argue that it’s another good layer of security,” Pistole said last week. “They identify a number of people who are criminals, either drug smugglers or money smugglers, even a couple of human traffickers. They haven’t detected any terrorists because, to our knowledge, no bomb-totting terrorists have tried to get on a plane.”

The proposed Trump budget would eliminate $45 million in grants to local police who patrol airports, contending that would “incentivize local law enforcement patrols that should already be a high priority for state and local partners.”

Pistole said the 2013 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport that killed TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez and wounded two other TSA officers might not have happened had uniformed Los Angeles police officers been patrolling the area. The grants to local law enforcement agencies program began after that shooting.

Two years later a New Orleans sheriff working the airport under the federal grant program shot and killed a man waving a machete at a checkpoint and carrying a bag with six gasoline-filled molotov cocktails and a barbecue lighter.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., registered her complaints about the impact of proposed cuts on her home state in a letter to DHS Secretary John Kelly on Monday.

“The screening that [TSA] agents provide is integral in maintaining passenger trust and confidence in traveling safety, and it is an important stopgap in preventing acts of violence,” Cortez Masto wrote. “Failing to provide TSA with adequate resources to perform security screenings efficiently will undoubtedly have adverse effects on travelers.”

She said more than 47 million passengers passed through the Las Vegas airport last year and that long TSA lines elsewhere “could have a dramatic and adverse impact on travel to Nevada, which adds $18.5 billion to the state’s GDP and supports up to 487,500 Nevada jobs.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post ยท Ashley Halsey Iii