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LAX shooting: New details emerge at Congressional hearing

Police officers at Terminal 2 at LAX on November 1st, 2013, the day a gunman entered the airport and opened fire, killing a TSA officer and wounding others.
Police officers at Terminal 2 at LAX on November 1st, 2013, the day a gunman entered the airport and opened fire, killing a TSA officer and wounding others.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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It was a hearing scheduled long before the LAX shooting, designed to be an examination of the Transportation Security Administration's behavioral screening program known as SPOT. But a House Homeland Security hearing morphed into a discussion about lessons learned from the incident at Los Angeles International Airport.

There was also new information about the killing of a TSA agent and wounding of others at Terminal 3.

RELATED: KPCC coverage of the shooting at LAX

It was November 1, when, according to court records, Paul Ciancia began shooting at TSA officers. LAX police responded within four minutes of getting the first call, said John Pistole, the top man at the Transportation Security Administration. The LAX Police say the entire shooting incident is currently under investigation and could not comment on whether the four minute response time was correct.

Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters doesn't sit on Homeland Security, but she represents the LAX neighborhood. She told Pistole that the airport shooting makes it clear LAX police need to be stationed at passenger screening areas – a practice  discontinued last April. LAX police officers currently roam around the terminals.

Pistole said that the TSA pays law enforcement agencies to provide security at more than 300 airports nationwide. As part of that aviation security program: "there is an agreed upon response time which is typically five minutes." In smaller or more rural airports, he said the response time may be 15, "or even 20 minutes."

Lawmakers asked whether the current system was sufficient. Pistole explained that the law enforcement component was designed with the idea that TSA officers would be finding passengers with a prohibited item - like a gun - that they intended to take on a plane, not a gun they were using at that moment.

Pistole said the LAX shooting could have been much worse. When the shooter shot at TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez the second time, "there are literally passengers laying on the floor right by him that he just avoids," Pistole said.

The TSA chief added that "clearly" the agreed upon five minutes for police to arrive was "too long in this case, so that’s something we’re looking at as part of our review."

Several lawmakers praised the fallen Hernandez. Pistole also commended the two TSA agents who were injured in the shooting, saying Behavior Detection Officer Tony Grigsby and Screening Training Instructor James Speer may have stayed too long at their post: "helping an elderly gentleman away from the checkpoint."

Communications issues were also discussed. 

Congresswoman Waters complained that airport police need to have access to airport security cameras. Waters said LAX and most other airports don't have a coordinated airport-wide security camera system. Instead, she said, TSA, airport management, airlines and vendors own and operate their own security camera systems "and there is no requirement that they provide airport police with a feed should an incident occur."

Lawmakers also questioned Pistole about radios. He said TSA supervisors have them at checkpoints, but on the day of the LAX shooting, the supervisor picked up a land line, what he called "a red phone," to call for help. But just as the supervisor was getting ready to speak, Pistole said: "she drops the phone and runs because the shooter’s coming up the escalator having just fired additional rounds, and so she did not stay to finish that call."

There was also discussion about whether an airport's security perimeter should be extended – a question left unanswered. Pistole, who recently returned to DC from Los Angeles, tried to paint a picture of how fast everything happened at LAX, saying the shooter took out a rifle and began firing a "matter of seconds" after he'd been dropped off at the curb of Terminal 3.

Lawmakers also discussed the TSA's "Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique" program, which was slammed in a report this week from the Government Accountability Office. GAO auditor Stephen Lord told members of the Homeland Security Committee that the research doesn't back up the notion that behavioral indicators can reliably identify "those who might be a threat to aviation." Lord said statistically, the methods used by TSA officers was only slightly better than mere chance.

The TSA's training for these Behavior Detection and Analysis officers – or BDA – was also criticized. Charles Edwards, Inspector General for the department of Homeland  Security, said BDA training was inconsistent and there was no system to evaluate mediocre instructors. 

African-American lawmakers on the committee complained about racial profiling by TSA screeners. Pistole tried to reassure members, saying officers took a "pledge" against profiling.

Lawmakers were also concerned about cost. They asked Pistole whether there was a better way to spend $220 million. Pistole defended the program, saying that figure averaged out to 25 cents per passenger. He warned that removing "one layer of security" would expose us "to potential terrorists that we don’t currently have."

The behavior detection program was also defended off Capitol Hill by J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents TSA officers. In a press call, Cox said the program was an integral component of the TSA’s overall security program. He admitted the program could be improved, but said: "an imperfect deterrent to a terrorist threat is better than no deterrent at all."