Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET
The Transportation Security Administration withheld N95 masks from staff and exhibited "gross mismanagement" in its response to the coronavirus crisis – leaving employees and travelers vulnerable during the most urgent days of the pandemic, a senior TSA official alleges in a new whistleblower complaint.
On Thursday evening, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that handles whistleblower complaints, said it had found "substantial likelihood of wrongdoing" in the complaint and ordered the Department of Homeland Security to open an investigation.
TSA Federal Security Director Jay Brainard is an official in charge of transportation security in the state of Kansas and has been with the agency for almost 20 years.
He told NPR that the leadership of his agency failed to protect its staff from the pandemic, and as a result, allowed TSA employees to be "a significant carrier" for the spread of the coronavirus to airport travelers.
"We did not take adequate steps to make sure that we were not becoming carriers and spreaders of the virus ourselves," Brainard says. "I believe absolutely that that contributed to the spread of the coronavirus."
His allegations include that personal protective equipment was withheld from TSA employees, that local supervisors were not permitted to mandate masks, that the TSA failed to adequately execute contact tracing, and the TSA declined to require that employees change or sanitize gloves between passengers.
The coronavirus crisis hit during one of the nation's busiest traveling times: spring break.
"You've got communities shutting down. You've got governors shutting things down. And we still hadn't mandated masks. We still hadn't mandated eyewear. We still weren't changing personal protective equipment as often as we needed to," Brainard says. "Every federal security director was forced to fend for him or herself."
The Department for Homeland Security, TSA's parent organization, did not respond to a request for comment. Office of Special Counsel spokesperson Zachary Kurz told NPR: "OSC cannot comment on or confirm the status of open investigations."
Brainard says that in mid-March, he and other security directors at TSA asked for help on masks and were rebuffed. When Brainard asked whether he could mandate his workforce wear masks, he was told this was not permissible.
"Every effort was made to convince our leadership to give us the latitude to roll out personal protective equipment. That didn't happen at that point," Brainard says.
When another federal security director asked in a March 12 email if the TSA could provide N-95 respirators masks they had in stock to employees, the request was denied without explanation.
"There are NO surgical masks available for purchase nor have any been sent to us. Employees are unable to acquire their own. Officers are now asking when they can have masks. We have N95 Masks in inventory. May they be issued to requesting officers?" Federal Security Director Robert Krekorian asked senior TSA leadership, in an email shared with NPR.
"While we understand the situation, at this time, you cannot issue N-95s," came the response, adding that additional masks would arrive by the end of that month.
"Waiting two or more weeks for them may be too late," Krekorian wrote back.
To date, TSA says 695 agency employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, and five employees have died as a result. In addition, one screening contractor has died because of COVID-19.
Publicly, the TSA's leadership suggested that they were adequately prepared for the pandemic.
On March 3 at a Senate hearing, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said he believed that the TSA had what it needed to handle the coming crisis, and that the TSA would provide surgical masks to its employees.
"I do feel we have the resources and the capability," he said. "If [screening officers] would like to wear a surgical mask, they're permitted to do that and we provide those masks."
But Brainard charges that the TSA's leadership was actually woefully slow to react.
Brainard says it was not until almost a month after he and others began raising questions that local leadership was allowed to mandate workers wear masks, and not until June that the TSA's security officers were required by agency officials to wear a mask.
In an emailed response to NPR, TSA said wearing masks was optional for officers in the checkpoint area until the first week of May. Eye protection is still optional, according to TSA, but gloves are required.
"TSA requires frontline personnel to wear nitrile gloves when conducting screening duties. They are to change their gloves after each pat-down. Travelers may request new gloves to be used at any time during the screening process," a TSA spokesperson told NPR.
NPR reached out to several TSA federal security directors, who said the policy had been that gloves are changed between pat-downs only in the specific situation when an alarm is set off. The TSA announced Friday, following the publication of NPR's story, that passengers would now be allowed to request TSA screeners change their gloves.
The number of passengers traveling through American airports dropped dramatically at the onset of the coronavirus crisis but is beginning to pick back up.
Brainard says that even now, more than three months after the president declared a state of national emergency, the response is lacking.
"The bottom line is the new procedures in place do not adequately address the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus," he told NPR.
He said that a "belated" set of procedures issued by the TSA did not have guidance or mandatory safeguards on protective eyewear, temperature checks or the sterilization of gloves between interactions with passengers.
The Office of Special Counsel's finding that there was "a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing" in Brainard's allegations means that the Department of Homeland Security must now conduct an investigation into the allegations within 60 days, although an extension is possible. The letter explaining that finding was shared with NPR by Brainard's lawyers.
The results of the investigation will then be sent back to Brainard for comment, and the final results shared with Congress and the White House and released to the public.
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.
NOEL KING, HOST:
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.