What TSA is telling key officials to say about the shutdown

Agency sends talking points to airports

By RENE MARSH, CNN
TSA via CNN

The Transportation Security Administration said one in 10 of its employees scheduled to work Sunday took the day off, with many employees citing "financial limitations" preventing them from working.

(CNN) - Top Transportation Security Administration management has instructed key agency officials at airports around the country to not make details public about how many officers are missing work due to the partial government shutdown, according to an internal email obtained exclusively by CNN.

The talking points sent Friday morning from TSA's deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, Jim Gregory, illustrate how the agency is working behind the scenes to control messaging on how the four-week government shutdown is impacting the agency and its security screening efforts.

"You can engage with media and address topics that touch your workforce such as how they are doing overall but there are some areas you can't address," the email states.

"Do not offer specific call out data at your airport," the email adds. "You can say you have experienced higher numbers of call outs but in partnership with the airport and airlines you are able to manage people and resources to ensure effective security is always maintained."

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TSA has repeatedly said the shutdown will not impact security even as screeners, working without pay, continue to call out from work on a higher-than-average basis, as first reported by CNN.

Talking points from government department headquarters are commonplace, and on Friday, Gregory told CNN that a select group of TSA leaders had asked for the guidance.

"In short, they are suggested language to be used if the situation applies. Yesterday, our operations center asked if they could forward my talking points out to all (federal security directors], and I thought it might be helpful, so I agreed," Gregory said of his email.

TSA this week has issued press releases with national percentages of what it calls "unscheduled absences." On Friday, TSA said 6.4% of its workforce had not showed up to work due to the shutdown compared with 3.8% last year.

However, because TSA is providing only nationwide averages, it is difficult for the flying public to know which airports are most impacted by the callouts.

While TSA has released nationwide call-out numbers, the agency denied a request for actual numbers of employees who have called out at specific airports since the shutdown began, citing security concerns.

"We consider callout numbers to be sensitive and are not releasing them publicly because we believe adversaries could use the information to exploit perceived vulnerabilities," Gregory told CNN. "Additionally, callout numbers don't tell the whole story since it's more about whether FSDs are able to properly staff checkpoints. Regardless, we want to ensure people know security will not be compromised at TSA and we will maintain security standards."

Gregory also tells TSA airport leadership in his email, "Don't discuss things that happened at other airports. Earlier in the week there were articles in the media about the gun missed at ATL on Jan 2. You can say that we take all security incidents seriously but I'd refer you to our headquarters to address that specific incident."

RELATED: TSA official warns of shutdown impact on security operations at California airport

TSA, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has been under public scrutiny since the shutdown began and CNN reported that hundreds of screeners were calling out sick at major airports.

On Monday, wait times at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport reached a maximum of 88 minutes, according to TSA. Last weekend, Miami International Airport reported callouts at double the normal rate and at one point a concourse was shut down. And Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport has shut down one checkpoint for six days.

In a tweet Thursday the head of TSA David Pekoske acknowledged the increasing calls outs. "There is a rise in callouts from officers who say they are not able to report to work due to financial reasons. I understand this & where necessary, we will exercise contingency plans using the resources & staff available."

Talking points from the internal email and agency press releases say airports are "exercising our contingency plans to ensure and maintain effective security due to call outs and anticipated high volume."

The agency isn't revealing details of all the contingency plans for security reasons, but CNN has learned that part of the plan involves deploying backup TSA officers to bolster airport staffing levels.

The general manager of Atlanta's airport said Wednesday that 20 backup TSA officers were brought in. CNN has also learned at least six TSA officers were sent to Newark Liberty International Airport.

Gregory's email notes that members of the flying public have expressed their gratitude to screeners working without pay.

He advises the TSA officials they can say: "Public support from passengers to airport personnel, and others making their way through terminals across the country, is greatly appreciated."

Another line: "TSA officers cannot accept gifts at the checkpoint, however they are grateful for everyone's gratitude. It makes a difference."

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