By Elvina Nawaguna
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers on Wednesday questioned the Transportation Security Administration's ability to keep travelers safe and prevent terrorism attacks, citing recent incidents that included a teenager who scaled a fence at a California airport and stowed away in the wheel well of a Hawaii-bound jet.
The TSA, which was formed after the September 11, 2001, attacks, annually screens about 640 million travelers and 1.5 billion bags on domestic and international flights leaving U.S. airports.
Several incidents, including a shooting in November at Los Angeles International Airport that left one TSA official dead, have put the agency under close scrutiny from lawmakers, the public and the transportation industry.
The recent stowaway case happened just weeks after the TSA inspected the San Jose International airport, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, and declared it to be in compliance with its security systems.
"If a 15-year-old can do this, who else can do this? What if it was someone else with an explosive that got on that plane?" Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, asked TSA Administrator John Pistole, who testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Lawmakers also questioned the agency's employee security clearance system, which may have been a factor in the killing of a Navy security officer at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia in March.
Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, noted that the shooter, a truck driver named Jeffrey Savage, used his TSA-issued Transportation Worker Identity Credential (TWIC) to gain access to the station, although he had a history of criminal offenses.
Once issued, the TSA expects TWIC-cleared employees to self-report any criminal incidents, a system that lawmakers said risks giving criminals access, as was the case in the Naval Station shooting.
"DHS (Department of Homeland Security) officials have told us that job applicants in the fast-food industry typically undergo a more robust background check than applicants for a TWIC card," Warner said.
Pistole said the TSA is continually working to improve the way it protects travelers and to train its workers, but needs Congress to clear funding for some programs.
"We could require airports to do much, much more, but the question is who pays for that," he said.
Since the TSA was formed, there has not been any successful terrorism incident carried out on U.S. airlines. Even so, Senator John Rockefeller, chairman of the committee, said the recent security breaches underscore the need to continually reevaluate and improve the agency's security measures.
"The looming question now is whether Congress is ready to give up its stubborn hold on resources the TSA needs to meet its mission," Rockefeller said.
(Reporting by Elvina Nawaguna; Editing by Leslie Adler)