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Whistleblower: TSA Failed To Protect Staff, Endangered Passengers During Pandemic


A high-ranking official at the TSA has filed a whistleblower complaint. Jay Brainard says the agency failed to protect passengers and TSA staff during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak. He says the TSA had protective gear, but it withheld it from employees who could've used it. There's some more in there, too. NPR's Tim Mak has talked to him about the complaint. Good morning, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Tell me about Jay Brainard.

MAK: Well, he's a TSA federal security director. He runs security operations in the state of Kansas for the TSA. Over the past few months, he's been trying to sound the alarm to anyone who will listen, his chain of command, Congress. And this month, as you mentioned, he filed a whistleblower complaint.

KING: And what is he alleging?

MAK: Well, he says that the TSA didn't take adequate steps to protect employees from coronavirus and, as a result, allowed TSA employees to be, quote, "a significant carrier" for its spread to airport travelers. In mid-March, he began raising questions and found pushback by TSA leadership. He asked to mandate masks among his TSA staff in Kansas and was told that was not allowed.

Another federal security director asked if they could use the N95 masks they had in stock and was told that that was also not allowed. Remember, this is all during mid-March, spring break, one of the busiest traveling seasons of the year. Here's what Brainard told NPR in an interview.

JAY BRAINARD: You've got communities shutting down. You've got governors shutting things down. And we still hadn't mandate masks. We still had mandate eyewear. We still weren't changing personal protective equipment as often as we needed to. Every federal security director was forced to fend for him or herself.

MAK: Brainard said that the TSA's contact tracing was inadequate, that the TSA declined to require employees change or sanitize glove between passengers and that these procedures - or lack of procedures - endangered both staff and passengers. It was not until almost a month after he began raising the question that state directors were even allowed to mandate mask-wearing. And so far, there are 695 TSA employees who have tested positive for coronavirus, and five have died. In addition, one contact screener caught - one contract screener has also died.

KING: And I imagine that is the broader significance of this complaint, right? It's not just about this one guy saying I saw a wrong done.

MAK: Right. It raises questions about the policies, whether the TSA acted swiftly enough to address the crisis. Here's what Brainard said.

BRAINARD: You're dealing with a pathogen during a national emergency in the height of one of the busiest travel seasons of the year, where people are getting on planes - students are getting on planes and going home. And they're coming through airports. We're not taking adequate steps. We did not take adequate steps to make sure that we were not becoming carriers and spreaders of the virus ourselves. And I believe absolutely that that contributed to the spread of the coronavirus.

MAK: So in March, the TSA administrator was asked in a congressional hearing if he was prepared for the pandemic. And he said they had the resources and the capability. He also said that the TSA would provide its employees masks. But what Brainard's complaint says is that the opposite happened, that masks were withheld, that guidance was nowhere to be seen and that the TSA mismanaged the response.

KING: So he's talking about early to mid-March. What is Mr. Brainard saying about the TSA's preparedness and actions today now?

MAK: Right. Well, months have passed since the start of the crisis. And Brainard is furious about the lack of progress made.

BRAINARD: The bottom line is the new procedures in place do not adequately address the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus, starting with the gloves. The gloves have to be changed or sterilized between passengers. Eyewear needs to be mandatory. We have eyewear. We have the goggles. We have the face shields. We have that equipment. Our employees have to wear this to protect themselves, to protect their families and to protect the public.

MAK: He says the TSA is unprepared as passenger traffic begins to pick back up this summer.

KING: And how will his complaint be handled, just real quick?

MAK: Well, last evening, the Office of Special Counsel, which is an independent organization that oversees whistleblower complaints, said they found a, quote, "substantial likelihood of wrongdoing" in Brainard's allegations. And they ordered the Department of Homeland Security to investigate and present findings within 60 days. The results of that investigation must eventually be made public.

KING: NPR's investigative correspondent Tim Mak. Thanks, Tim.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 18, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly said the Transportation Security Administration was created in 2003. It was created in 2001 and moved under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. In addition, we said Jay Brainard has been with the agency since its inception. He started in 2002.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.