John Mica Attacks TSA 'Chat-Downs' As 'Idiotic,' Says Screening Failures Are 'Off The Charts'

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the House committee that oversees the Transportation Security Administration blasted the agency's recent test of "chat-downs" of airline passengers, calling the pilot program "idiotic."

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) told reporters during a briefing Monday that the TSA's experiment at Boston's Logan International Airport -- in which officers engaged passengers in brief conversations to help detect suspicious behavior -- is "a mess."

"This is no joke," said Mica, who has pummeled the TSA as a bloated bureaucracy with a mission he believes could be carried out more efficiently and cheaply by private companies under federal government supervision.

Mica laced into the pilot program, slated to be tested next in Detroit before rolling out to airports nationwide, as a pale imitation of the interrogations routinely conducted by Israeli security at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. He noted that the expanded behavior detection pilot builds on an existing program that the Government Accountability Office said lacked scientific validity and has cost "a quarter billion" to hire thousands of screening officers.

During a recent visit to Logan to observe the pilot, Mica said he watched about a dozen officers quiz passengers in the terminal. "I put my ear up and listened to some idiotic questions," he said of the questions that delved into where travelers were coming from, why they'd been there and where they were going.

"I talked to them about their training, which was minimal," he said of his conversations with security personnel. He went on to say that even though passengers selected for further screening were supposed to go through hi-tech scanners, on the day he visited the machines were out of service because there weren't enough trained personnel to run them.

"It's almost idiotic," Mica said. "It's still not a risk-based system. It's not a thinking system."

This isn't the first time Mica has denounced the agency he helped to create in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- on Monday he even trashed the TSA's blue uniforms and badges. But his latest harsh criticisms offered a preview of an upcoming committee report on the TSA's first decade.

The assessment will likely recount TSA's controversial record of using imaging technology that has raised the hackles of privacy advocates and has proven less than effective in spotting the dangerous materials they were designed to detect.

"The failure rate (for imaging equipment) is classified but it would absolutely knock your socks off," Mica told reporters. The number of times TSA pat-downs failed to detect contraband is also secret but, according to the chairman, is "off the charts."

Mica said the report, due out in the next couple of weeks, would be "sort of like the record of the Marx Brothers."