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MONDAY, JULY 4, 2005
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EDITORIAL

What price airline security? Possibly millions too much

One of the more strategic ad placements we've seen recently is on a washingtonpost.com page that details hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on hotel phone calls by government contractors.

Off to the side is an advertiser's link that says "Unlimited calls to U.S. & Canada $24.99/month."

It's too bad the contractors were not able to avail themselves of that service when they spent $377,273.75 of tax money on phone calls that auditors say are unsubstantiated. A single call from the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Chicago to Iowa City cost $526.95. Some hotels were charging around $1 per minute. Some calls were international. Some were to residential phones at suspicious times of day.

Phone calls, though, were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The Defense Contract Audit Agency questioned $303 million of the $741 million spent to assess and hire passenger screeners for airports after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Much of the cost came from basing operations at expensive hotels. Also, the government was charged $48 per hour for temporary workers that cost $20 an hour, and "no-show" fees cost $4.4 million for job candidates who did not appear for tests.

The new Transportation Security Administration hired NCS Pearson Inc. as the prime contractor to test, interview, fingerprint, medically evaluate and pre-certify candidates. The nation needed 60,000 screeners to meet a one-year congressional deadline.

"Pearson met the mandate and delivered a federal screener force by a deadline which many thought was impossible," the company's president, Mac Curtis, said in its defense.

TSA and DCAA have refused to release the audit; what we know of it comes from a leaked copy. It raises enough questions about careless spending, possible fraud and even war profiteering that Congress ought to take a look at it. Public hearings would be enlightening.

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