In this era of terrorist threats, Cathleen Berrick has been a vigilant government watchdog holding federal transportation officials accountable for security lapses and prompting them to make changes to better protect the traveling public.
The managing director of homeland security and justice issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Berrick has led comprehensive studies providing valuable information to Congress on security vulnerabilities and prompted the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to make significant improvements.
Berrick, for example, exposed how the TSA’s exemptions in screening air cargo subjected airline passengers to increased risk, and she identified alternate security procedures used by other countries. Thanks to her hard work and persistence, TSA adopted some of her recommendations, and Congress passed legislation requiring physical screening of all cargo by August 2010.
Last year, Berrick worked closely with TSA on Secure Flight, the project that streamlined and improved the screening of airline passengers against the “terrorist watch list.” The system was designed to keep potential terrorists off of commercial flights, and became operational in January 2009.
“Previously, Secure Flight was simply a piece of paper that was inaccurate, inconsistent and generally flawed,” said former TSA Administrator Edmund Hawley. “Instead of sitting there and judging TSA, Cathleen dug in and helped make it better and make it work.”
“Without her it would never have been done—she was there from beginning to end,” he said.
The GAO executive also identified the need for more oversight in securing mass transit and passenger rail systems, which contributed to TSA increasing its risk assessment and inspection efforts. Her work also informed Congressional legislation passed to strengthen the security of these systems.
“Transportation touches most people’s lives every day—driving on highways, riding the subway to work, taking the bus or flying across the country,” said Berrick.
“My work focuses on how best transportation systems can be secured without jeopardizing the flow of people and commerce, and helps Congress and agencies close security gaps so that people using these systems can move freely and without worry, a very fundamental need and right,” she said.
Mike Beland, the staff director at the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, said Berrick is “known as the expert on these issues.”
“Committees rely heavily on her for ideas on oversight and innovation,” he said.
Since 2006, Berrick has testified before congressional committees as an expert witness more than 20 times, and has overseen the publication of more than 30 GAO reports addressing transportation security issues.
“She works well with Congress on oversight and public hearings, where she has had to balance transparency and security-sensitive information, and behind-the-scenes work where she often had to explain difficult concepts in a clear, concise manner,” said Norman Rabkin, who was Berrick’s supervisor for six years.
“I know of nobody more adept at working with two traditionally warring factions and bridging differences and coming up with innovative, mutually acceptable solutions,” said Rabkin.
Berrick’s successes have not come easily.
“It’s a real challenge to build a constructive environment whereby the agency we are reviewing knows that we are both working for the same purpose: better government,” she said.
Earlier this year, a senior TSA official testified before Congress on a top-priority aviation security program that the agency had been working for years. The program has faced numerous problems and delays, but recently has been successfully fielded.
“In talking before Congress about the program, this official thanked me personally, and GAO, for our help in addressing the program’s long-standing challenges and in contributing to its ultimate success,” said Berrick.
Berrick has spent her entire career in government. She started with the Department of Defense Inspector General and Air Force Audit Agency, moved to the Postal Service Inspector General’s office and then to the GAO, where she says she enjoys being the “watchdog” ensuring that taxpayer dollars are being directed to the most pressing security needs.
“I really appreciate seeing the direct impact that my work has on people’s everyday lives,” said Berrick. “From prompting TSA to take action to better protect citizens by strengthening the security of the nation’s transportation systems, to informing the public about the state of security of these systems, it’s a great job.”