Hundreds of Transportation Security Administration staffers have failed drug and alcohol tests at major airports around the United States, a new investigation revealed.
In its report published this week, KGW-TV found that 858 TSA workers around the country tested positive for drugs and alcohol between 2010 and 2016, according to federal records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
And the drug use occurred at some of the nation’s busiest hubs: 51 TSA workers tested positive for drugs and alcohol at Los Angeles International Airport, 41 tested positive at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, 35 at Boston's Logan International Airport and six at the Portland International Airport.
A spokesperson for the TSA said any employees who fail the drug and alcohol tests, which are administered randomly, are fired. The agency also targets employees it believes to be under the influence.
“Illegal substances include, but are not limited to, cocaine, marijuana, opiates, amphetamines, and phencyclidine ,” TSA spokesman Nico Melendez told KGW.
While any number of TSA employees testing positive for drug use is alarming, it’s important to note that the count is fairly low. Of the 17,649 workers the TSA randomly tested last year, only 97 — or 0.55 percent — tested positive. According to Quest Diagnostics, the average percentage of positive drug tests for federal workers in “safety sensitive” jobs is 1.5 percent.
“Our expectation is that they will keep us safe in the airways, so when you put that type of expectation on somebody you would certainly want them fully alert and not inhibited by alcohol or drugs in any way,” homeland security analyst Scott Winegar told KGW.
The report follows a 2016 analysis from the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, which found employee misconduct at the TSA has “increased substantially over time, despite the agency’s attempts to address unacceptable behavior.”
“TSA employees have been criminally charged for using cocaine on the job, facilitating large scale drug and human smuggling, and engaging in child pornography activities,” the report stated.
And in February, TSA and airport employees were brought up on charges related to an alleged cocaine-smuggling operation going back nearly 20 years. The defendants allegedly transported cocaine-filled suitcases through security at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Between 1998 and 2016, Newsweek reported, roughly 20 tons of cocaine made it through the airport.
“TSA has zero tolerance for employees engaged in criminal activity to facilitate contraband smuggling,” José Baquero, federal security director for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, said in a statement at the time.
Last month, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) introduced the Strengthening Oversight of TSA Employee Misconduct Act, which would require senior TSA officials to oversee the review of disciplinary actions given in response to TSA agents and supervisors who act inappropriately.
Currently, the reviews on agents are conducted by local supervisors and vary widely, depending on the circumstance, which, according to Perry, potentially allows for gross misconduct to be overlooked.
The Republican lawmaker introduced the legislation in response to a February incident at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, when 11 passengers were able to walk straight through TSA security checkpoints without being screened because agents left the station unsupervised.
Rather than notifying Port Authority police, the TSA agents reportedly took two hours to tell police about the incident.
“This is a common sense proposal that puts ineffective bureaucracy in check and helps keep Americans safe,” Perry said. “After continued mismanagement, we must hold our security officials accountable to the American public.”
The TSA currently has about 60,000 employees working at 450 airports.