MINNEAPOLIS - With summer vacation season about to start, people are asking whether the problems causing long lines at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP) security check points have been fixed.
At the same time, at least one manager within the agency in charge of airport security says the public hasn't even been told the real reasons for the increase in wait times.
As frustrations mounted, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) blamed an increase in passengers and a shortage of staff.
"We are down 60 full-time equivalent employees," Cliff Van Leuven, federal security director for the TSA in Minneapolis, told the Metropolitan Airports Commission in March.
But one senior manager at TSA Minneapolis calls that a smokescreen.
"I think it's very misleading," said Drew Rhoades, assistant federal security director for mission support in Minneapolis. "I think the American public, and specifically the people who fly out of Minneapolis should be outraged."
Rhoades is a whistleblower who has even testified before Congress over his concerns. Many of them are detailed in a 112-page EEO complaint he filed.
Instead of staff shortages, Rhoades blames the long lines on the TSA’s own poor planning.
“We had enough resources. We just mismanaged them," Rhoades said.
And one of the factors, he claims, is trouble in TSA’s highly-publicized "PreCheck" program.
As a TSA video explains, it’s supposed to be a fast lane, providing reduced security screening for trusted travelers who sign up in advance, are fingerprinted and approved after a criminal background check.
There’s also an $85 fee, which is one reason fewer people than projected have signed up.
But when the new North Checkpoints opened at MSP, Rhoades says TSA foolishly set aside four of the 10 lanes for PreCheck.
"We don't have the demand. We don't' have the numbers to justify four PreCheck lanes," Rhoades said.
But records obtained by KARE 11 reveal something else. For years, when the regular lines got long, TSA had quietly been letting passengers who didn't qualify use the PreCheck lines.
"We were allowing unvetted passengers to take advantage of expedited screening," Rhoades said.
On YouTube, you can even find video of TSA using an iPad app to randomly pick people for PreCheck.
TSA called it “Managed Inclusion II”
When asked whether Managed Inclusion II resulted in some who might not have been approved for PreCheck to move through those lines, Rhoades said, "Absolutely."
KARE 11 has discovered that a security breach uncovered at MSP was one of the factors that forced TSA to stop using PreCheck as relief valve when regular lines got too long.
An Inspector General’s report describes the incident after a whistleblower complaint that a “notorious convicted felon” and “former member of a domestic terrorist group” was allowed to go through PreCheck's reduced screening.
Although details were blacked out, KARE 11 has obtained a document saying it happened in Minneapolis and involved Sara Jane Olson, the one-time member of thd Symbionese Liberation Army who was convicted in connection with a fatal bombing in the 1970s.
At a Congressional hearing last year another Minneapolis TSA employee blasted TSA’s PreCheck policies.
"TSA is handing out PreCheck status like Halloween candy in an effort to expedite passengers as quickly as possible despite self-admitted security gaps that are being created by the process," said Becky Roering, an assistant federal security director.
That, and the revelation that TSA failed to catch fake weapons and explosives 96 percent of the time in an Inspector General’s test last year, led new TSA administrator Peter Neffenger to change policy.
"We have stopped the practice of putting people - uncleared people - into the PreCheck lane," Neffenger said during a visit to MSP this spring.
A spokesman for the local Airports Commission believes a big reason why the regular lines got so long this year is that TSA was forced to stop using the PreCheck lanes as an overflow valve.
The question remains whether recent changes such as adding two bomb-sniffing dog teams to MSP will speed up the lines in time for summer travelers.
"if we don't learn from our mistakes from spring break, then we're going to repeat those same mistakes," Rhoades said.