Security-screening equipment in storage in Texas.Oversight & Government Reform Committee

An estimated $184 million worth of security-screening equipment purchased by the federal government is gathering dust in storage rather than keeping Americans safe, according to the results of a congressional investigation [PDF] published May 9.

Staffers leading a joint probe that involved two committees found thousands of pieces of equipment sitting idle in a Dallas warehouse used by the Transportation Security Administration, an agency created after the Sept. 11 hijackings to keep terrorists off of commercial airliners.

The chairman for one of those committees responsible for oversight and government reform – California Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Vista – has become a thorn in the side of the Obama White House as he seeks to unearth evidence of waste, fraud and abuse. Issa in early May threatened to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for allegedly hiding information about a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms operation that went awry when guns wound up in the hands of suspected drug traffickers.

Issa’s latest aside targets spending at the Department of Homeland Security, specifically its investments in airport-screening technology. Capitol Hill investigators learned that hundreds of baggage-screening machines went unused for over nine months. A third had been in storage for more than a year, resulting in depreciated losses that totaled millions for taxpayers.    

The Transportation Security Administration “knowingly” purchased more so-called “explosive trace detectors” than were needed in hopes of getting a bulk discount, according to the report. Instead, nearly 1,500 of them with a price tag of $30,000 each (a total of $44 million) were languishing in storage as of mid-February.

Between 2004 and 2006, the federal government rushed to purchase 200 machines known as “puffers,” which shoot the clothing of travelers with air in an attempt to dislodge and detect dangerous substances. But only half were deployed because the agency realized belatedly that they didn’t operate as expected. So they were removed and left in storage for four years.

Officials have “wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds on failed solutions to secure commercial aviation, ignoring internal protocols to prevent such waste and adopting technologies that have repeatedly failed operational and covert testing,” the report said.

Federal officials even actively attempted to conceal evidence of warehouse mismanagement from Congress, the report alleges, by attempting to “hide the disposal of approximately 1,300 pieces of screening equipment from its warehouses in Dallas, Texas, prior to the arrival of congressional staff.”

 
In a May 9 statement, Issa blamed “systemic” purchasing dysfunction at the Transportation Security Administration.

“These flaws are exacerbated by a management structure that seems content to throw millions of dollars at untested solutions that are bought in excess and poorly deployed and managed,” he said. “This is not a security operation, but rather a recipe for waste and abuse.”

David Nicholson, the Transportation Security Administration’s top financial official, testified [PDF] before Issa’s committee the day the report was released. Nicholson said security equipment must be rapidly acquired and deployed due to “changing threat information,” and a stored inventory is necessary for airport facilities that change over time or are struck by a natural disaster.

“Our goal at all times is to maximize transportation security to stay ahead of evolving terrorist threats while protecting privacy and civil liberties and facilitating the flow of legitimate travel,” he said.

“To remain ahead of those who seek to do us harm, we continue to evolve our security approach by examining the procedures and technologies we use, how specific security procedures are carried out, and how screening is conducted,” he added.

Auditor Steve Lord of the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress, told the committee that purchasing problems have been a recurring theme at the Department of Homeland Security since its creation in 2003. Testing and evaluation have not always met requirements, and some technologies were sent out to the field before their costs and benefits were fully analyzed.

Such problems have led to the department’s continuing designation as “high risk” by the watchdog office, which has produced numerous reports in recent years questioning the young bureaucracy’s money-handling practices.

“Our prior work has shown that not resolving problems discovered during testing can sometimes lead to costly redesign and rework at a later date,” Lord testified [PDF]. “Addressing such problems before moving to the acquisition phase can help agencies better manage costs.”

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.