The Transportation Security Agency proposed regulations to require additional security vetting of public transit employees to mitigate the threat of “insiders” attacking the nation’s commuting networks.
TSA is asking the public and stakeholders to weigh in on an idea to require security-sensitive employees working on railroads or buses to undergo federally led background checks that would include citizenship verification and references against intelligence watchlists.
The proposal comes two decades after terrorists from al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes on Sept. 11, highlighting a need for federal agencies to have checks in place to ensure transit is not compromised.
The 9/11 Commission — an independent, bipartisan body created by Congress and then-President George W. Bush in late 2002 to investigate the attacks — recognized that “[o]pportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation as they are in aviation.”
“As compared to attacks carried out by passengers, attacks carried out by employees pose a higher likelihood of success and/or a larger impact due to employees’ knowledge of the systems, infrastructure vulnerabilities and operations,” according to TSA’s rule.
TSA said this program will mimic others that have put employees through similar vetting procedures over the years, like screenings given to maritime employees and longshoremen. It also said that today it can take advantage of technology and capabilities for vetting that have matured since the early 2000s, with new electronic processes that are faster and more accurate.
The investigations would be paid for by individuals once they consent to a background investigation, a spokesperson said to Federal Times. Employers may choose to reimburse the costs.
In response to the proposed rule, which is open for feedback on the Federal Register until Oct. 1, some municipal transportation authorities said they’re concerned about this program deterring much-needed job applicants with just more hoops to jump through and created added financial constraints.
The Fort Wayne Public Transportation Corporation in Indiana submitted a comment saying it had questions about “additional time and expense related to onboarding of new employees during a time of great challenges in workforce recruitment.”
Everett Transit, the public authority based in Washington with 140 employees, said the proposed expectations for “reporting, record retention, timelines, and enforcements are just not feasible for an agency of our size and capacity.”
“Many transit agencies already conduct background checks through private companies,” it said. “It would be ideal if transit agencies could work with their existing background checks to include the elements that TSA believes is necessary.”
Another aspect of the proposed change would include continuous monitoring of an employee’s file by running the collected data against watchlists each time they are updated.
“A one-time vet of names would be viewed as substandard and the cost reduction would not justify the loss of security benefits,” the agency said in its proposal. “All of the vetting databases change daily, and thus a snapshot of a workforce in place for one day in time serves minimal long-term security benefit. An individual who passes a terrorism check Monday, may be newly identified as a threat and appear on a terrorist watchlist Tuesday.”
That’s a shared philosophy of another larger governmentwide effort to reform the background check process for millions of employees and contractors who hold security clearances. The effort, dubbed Trusted Workforce 2.0, will replace legacy technology that risks compromising employees’ data and lessen the administrative burden of renewing clearances by monitoring profiles for changes in real time.
The idea, in both instances, is for an agency to be able to take quicker action once they see something that could be suspicious or disqualifying.
To further efficiency, TSA is proposing to add entirely digital ID verification and enrollment process, particularly where there is no need to collect fingerprints or take a photograph. That would be in addition to in-person services at 300 enrollment sites.
TSA said in it’d consider alternative means of providing identity verification besides an I.D. as biometric technologies like fingerprints, facial recognition and iris scans become more reliable and commonplace.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.