The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) came under bipartisan scrutiny from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform over its record keeping policies after the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector General released a report finding that TSA “cannot be trusted” to accurately determine the confidentiality of internal documents. Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) alleged that the agency systematically classifies potentially embarrassing documents as “Security Sensitive Information” (SSI) to cover up retaliatory actions taken by TSA against whistleblowers. His claims were supported by committee members from both sides of the aisle who grilled acting TSA Administrator Huban Gowadia for almost three hours about the agency’s operating procedures and culture. Chairman Chaffetz and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) criticized TSA’s practice of providing complete records to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector General while redacting or withholding some of that same information from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC). The committee leadership accused Gowadia of trying to cover up embarrassing documents, particularly related to the alleged practice of forcefully reassigning personnel to new posts around the country as punishment for whistleblowing.
Gowadia, who served as Deputy Administrator under the Obama Administration before becoming acting chief in January, defended her agency claiming that departmental guidance allows TSA to withhold information from OSC, a claim that Chaffetz and panelist vehemently refuted. As the hearing reached its peak level of tension, Chaffetz ordered Gowadia’s staffers out of the committee room to call DHS headquarters for permission to produce the name of specific attorneys who advised Gowadia on TSA’s right to claim attorney-client privilege.
When the staffers did not return by the end of the hearing, Chaffetz threatened to subpoena TSA for the withheld and redacted documents if Gowadia did not provide by March 10 backdated attorney-client privilege logs and the specific names of DHS attorneys who had provided the departmental guidance.
Chaffetz dismissed the hearing by vowing to “go to the ends of the earth” with his probe into TSA. His investigation into the agency’s record keeping practices comes at a time when officials across the federal government have come under public scrutiny for improper records management practices, such as using personal emails and unsecured phones.
The methodology behind Chaffetz’s selections of which instances to investigate is unclear, but the TSA hearing indicates that this is just the beginning. While this scattered approach to oversight of DHA and TSA is concerning, it serves to highlight the complexity of congressional oversight of DHS. Regardless of the outcome, the biggest question still remaining is whether the fight with Congress will distract TSA leadership from its core mission as the busy summer travel season approaches.