Transportation Secretary occupies an unlikely space: center stage

On the morning of September 11, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta had just one thing on his mind: noise. He was in his conference room at a breakfast meeting with Isabelle Durant, Belgium's transportation minister, discussing the European Union's plan to restrict aircraft noise at its member nations' airports. With them were a handful of aides, including Jane Garvey, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration. Hosting a diplomatic meeting on aircraft noise is exactly the kind of work that normally consumes much of a Transportation Secretary's time.

Suddenly, at 8:55 a.m., Mineta's chief of staff, John Flaherty, walked into the conference room. "Mr. Secretary and Administrator Garvey, may I see you?" Mineta stared at Flaherty, silently reminding his chief of staff that he was interrupting a formal diplomatic meeting. Mineta and Garvey excused themselves and left the room, and then Flaherty told the Secretary the news that would profoundly change his job and the role of his department: a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.

When Mineta walked back into the conference room to say that he would have to conclude the meeting, Durant knew that something horrible had happened. "I saw on the face of Mr. Mineta that it was terrible [news]," she said in an interview. Garvey raced to the nearby FAA building, while Mineta and Flaherty hurried to the Secretary's office to monitor developments. Minutes later, the two men saw the second plane smash into the trade center.

Before September 11, those Americans who were aware that Mineta was Transportation Secretary probably knew little more about him than one or two novel facts: He was the sole Democrat in the Bush Cabinet, and he was a Japanese-American who had spent part of his childhood in a World War II-era internment camp. Mineta had been dealing mostly with issues such as aircraft noise, Amtrak's budget woes, and whether Mexican trucks should be allowed to operate in the United States; he also filled in as a first-base coach during T-ball games on the White House South Lawn.

But since September 11, Mineta has figured prominently in some of the nation's biggest stories--the unprecedented two-day shutdown of the aviation system; the fight over the controversial airport security bill; the beefing up of security at the nation's ports and railways; and the creation of a transportation security agency. His press conferences, which used to be attended only by transportation industry journalists and a handful of other writers, now include reporters from ABC and CNN. Last month, Mineta appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes to discuss his opposition to racial profiling at airports.

In fact, in terms of the media exposure received by Cabinet members, Mineta ranks behind only Donald Rumsfeld at Defense, Colin L. Powell at State, and John D. Ashcroft at Justice. "Because of September 11, Secretary Mineta--on an ongoing basis--is certainly the most visible Secretary in the history of the department," said James H. Burnley, who served as Transportation Secretary during the Reagan Administration.

Mineta has received much praise in his post-September 11 role. "I think he has done a fantastic job so far," said Jack Schenendorf, who headed this Administration's transportation transition team. Even President Bush has publicly praised Mineta. "I picked a good man in Norm Mineta, who is rising to the occasion," the President said when he signed the aviation security legislation on November 19.

Yet Mineta is also discovering a truth about life in the spotlight: The brighter the glare, the more noticeable the blemishes. In recent weeks, pundits and members of Congress have pilloried Mineta for some of his statements. Columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times attacked him for admitting that the Transportation Department might not meet a 60-day deadline to begin screening all checked baggage for explosives. "Give Mr. Mineta credit for candor," Rich wrote, "but he might as well have just painted a big target on the back of the nation's commercial airline system."

In an interview with National Journal, Mineta said that when he accepted his Cabinet post, he had no idea of the challenges he would face, the long hours he would have to work, and the criticism he would receive. Mineta, 70, recalled what Rodney Slater, President Clinton's Transportation Secretary, had told him about the position: "He said, `It's a great, great job. You'll really enjoy it. It's a snap.' "

But Mineta's first year has hardly been a snap. He even had to check himself into a hospital to deal with a persistent nosebleed, which some observers suggest was caused by his nonstop work. "I don't think any other Secretary since the formation of the department has had to face anything of this proportion," Mineta said. "September 11 turned the world upside down."

Government's Worst--and Finest--Hour

According to many observers, September 11 represented a failure in government. Our intelligence community failed to detect the plot. Our immigration system failed to keep the terrorists from entering the United States. And our aviation system failed to keep them from boarding U.S. airliners and storming their cockpits. Yet September 11 also offered an instance of the federal government performing at its best: the shutdown of the aviation system.

After the second plane hit the World Trade Center, Mineta rushed to the White House's operations center, where he joined Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials, and stayed in constant contact with Garvey and other advisers at the FAA. Then, at 9:43 a.m., a third hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon. Moments later, with no idea how many other hijacked planes might be in the sky, Mineta gave the order to halt all air traffic. "When one of something occurs, it's an accident," Mineta has said many times. "When two of the same thing occurs, it's a pattern. And when three of the same thing occurs, it's a program."

Thus began the first complete shutdown of the U.S. aviation system. Nearly 5,000 commercial and private planes were in the sky that Tuesday morning, but within the shutdown's first four minutes, air traffic controllers directed 700 planes to land. In the next 54 minutes, another 2,800 planes reached the ground, and by 12:16 p.m., the entire U.S. airspace was clear of civilian traffic. "The clearest image in my mind," Garvey said, "is standing in the FAA operations center and watching--watching that wonderful electronic map of the United States showing all the airborne aircraft, thousands of airplanes, and then fewer and fewer and fewer, and finally the map went blank."

The shutdown also illustrated the bureaucratic chain of command working as designed. Garvey and FAA acting Deputy Administrator Monte Belger were able to give Mineta all the information necessary to make his decision. "We were in constant communication with him," Garvey recalled. "We were very much working together."

The smooth shutdown owed some of its success to the recent battles over airline delays and congestion. In March 2000, in an effort to combat congestion in the skies, the FAA gave more air traffic control authority to its command center in Herndon, Va. And on September 11 during the grounding of the 5,000 airplanes, that center became an information clearinghouse. "I have to really underscore ... the role the command center played," Garvey said. "Being able to funnel that information through to the command center, and the command center being able to hook into all of the dispatchers throughout the country, was critical."

Although shutting down the system was hardly a simple task, it was perhaps the easiest one Mineta and the department faced in the first few days after the attacks. Next, they had to develop a whole host of new airport security measures, such as banning small knives and curbside check-ins. Then, with thousands of passengers stranded and with airlines and cargo carriers losing millions of dollars following the grounding of their planes, they worked to restart the aviation system, which occurred on Thursday, September 13. After that, Mineta and his team struggled to reopen Reagan Washington National Airport. The National Security Council and the Secret Service, citing potential security threats, opposed the reopening, because of the airport's proximity to the White House. The airport finally reopened on October 4.

Still, most observers call Mineta's decision to shut down the aviation system his finest moment as Secretary. "I congratulate you, Norm," Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told Mineta during a congressional hearing just a week after the terrorist attacks. "I think the decision you made saved more lives than most people will ever, ever know."

A Test of His Loyalties

While the aviation shutdown was perhaps Mineta's finest moment, the contentious showdown over the airport security bill tested his loyalties as a Democrat working in a Republican Administration. On October 11, exactly one month after the attacks, the Democratic-controlled Senate unanimously passed a bill to improve aviation security. In addition to expanding the air marshal program and strengthening cockpit doors, it required that all airport security screeners become federal employees working inside the Justice Department.

At that time, President Bush signaled a willingness to sign such a bill despite some reservations, but House Republicans--led by Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay--had other ideas. Believing that the Republicans had already ceded too much ground to the Democrats after September 11, they attacked the Senate bill's federalization provision, arguing that it would increase the size of government too much. "The last thing we can afford to do," DeLay said, "is erect a new bureaucracy that is unaccountable and unable to protect the American public."

Armey and DeLay eventually persuaded the White House and Mineta to lobby against a House bill that was identical to the Senate version. And those efforts paid off on November 1, when the House narrowly rejected that legislation and passed a Republican-crafted bill that gave the President the authority to decide whether screeners should be federal or private. In the end, however, the conference committee settled on a compromise bill that looked more like the Senate version. It made all airport screeners federal employees, and said that airports can revert back to a privatized workforce after three years. The final bill also placed these employees in a new agency--the Transportation Security Administration--within the Transportation Department.

Mineta, a former Congressman from California with a liberal bent, found himself in an interesting situation during this legislative fight. "The Secretary was definitely put into a difficult spot," said Kenneth Quinn, an aviation lobbyist who represented the private screening firms during the debate. Mineta had to "lobby against a bill that had the support of the Senate and the support of his fellow Democrats in the House."

Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a longtime Mineta friend, says that some fellow Democrats were disappointed to see the Secretary standing side by side with Armey and DeLay. But Oberstar contends that Mineta was just doing his job. House members "may have 600,000 constituents, but every Cabinet officer has a constituency of one--the President of the United States." According to Oberstar, Mineta served the President and House Republicans well as he lobbied members of Congress. "What he did was walk people through his thought process, recognizing the pressure that the President would face from conservatives in the House who would be flat-out opposed to a broader government role," he said. "It was clear that he had come to an intellectual level of comfort with the ideas that he was proposing and advocating."

When Mineta agreed to serve in the Administration, he worked out a deal with Bush that allowed him to maintain his independence while still serving the President, explains Susy Smith, who was Mineta's chief of staff from 1981-89 when he was in the House. Mineta, she says, established that he would be able to express his views and positions privately to the President and within the Administration. But if Bush decided against his recommendation, Mineta would represent the President's decision. "I am the Secretary of Transportation, but I'm staff to the President of the United States," Mineta explained. "And once the decisions are made, we all salute and carry things out."

Nevertheless, some foes of the Senate bill insist that Mineta wasn't the good soldier that Oberstar and others have described. They complain that he was too equivocal and accommodating during the legislative debate. In fact, some critics say that Mineta was telling members of Congress that he would be happy with any bill--as long as it gave the security responsibility to the Transportation Department. "Mineta was like a leaf, blowing back and forth," said a Senate GOP aide.

Experience, Honesty--and Criticism

Mineta's experience in transportation matters has been his most valuable attribute as Secretary. He spent 20 years in the House representing San Jose, Calif., and he served on (and at one time chaired) the Public Works Committee, where he worked on aviation and other transportation issues. In 1995, he left Capitol Hill to work as a lobbyist for aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. And in 2000, President Clinton tapped Mineta to be Commerce Secretary, making him the first Asian-American to serve in a Cabinet. "I've said many times that Norm Mineta is the only Secretary of Transportation-and I've known them all-who took the job without a learning curve," Oberstar said. "He came in and hit the ground running because he was schooled in all of the multiple facets of the job."

Another striking quality has been Mineta's honesty. In June, he candidly told reporters during a roundtable discussion that the merger between United Airlines Inc. and US Airways Inc. would probably not be approved. He was the first Administration official to predict the merger's outcome, and time proved him right. During that same meeting, he also told reporters that Amtrak's financial condition was poor, and that having the United States operate a truly national passenger-rail system might not be the best approach. Both comments immediately made news--a stark departure from past interviews with Transportation Secretaries.

A third key to Mineta's success has been Michael P. Jackson, the department's deputy secretary. Mineta has put Jackson in charge of the most-pressing transportation matters--not only Amtrak and Mexican trucks, but also the new Transportation Security Administration. The two men worked together at Lockheed Martin, and while Mineta was on the Hill, Jackson served as chief of staff to Andrew H. Card Jr., who was then Transportation Secretary to the first President Bush. "I know [Jackson's] thoroughness in getting things done, his intelligence, his integrity," Mineta said. "So I love Michael Jackson."

But Mineta's experience, his honesty, and his reliable deputy have also gotten him into trouble. While praising Jackson's smarts and performance, one Hill aide believes that Mineta is relying too much on his deputy: "[Jackson is] doing everything, and you can't do everything well." In fairness, however, because the Senate still hasn't confirmed a few of Mineta's top aides, it is hard for Mineta and his deputy to delegate tasks.

It's Mineta's honesty that has seemed to produce the most problems for the Secretary. In late November, at a conference hosted by Aviation Week, Mineta suggested he might not be able to meet the airport security law's requirement that by January 18, he have a system in place to screen all passenger bags. "There aren't enough people," Mineta said then. "There aren't enough bomb-sniffing dogs to be able to do the job."

That comment produced an avalanche of criticism. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., who was a principal author of the airport security bill, attacked the Secretary and the Transportation Department. "They begged for the responsibility [for airport security]," he said. "And then, within a week afterwards, they say, `By the way, the law we signed, we're not going to comply.' " Moreover, as a Senate Republican aide explained, Mineta's remark undercut the public's confidence that air travel was becoming more secure. "What Mineta did was hack away at that perception, which is 50 percent of the reason why we passed that bill," the aide said.

Burnley, the Reagan-era Transportation Secretary, argues that Mineta didn't deserve such a rebuke, because Congress's security bill created impossible deadlines. Indeed, before the bill was signed into law, screeners inspected less than 5 percent of all bags. "The problem is that [Mineta] doesn't have a magic wand," Burnley said. The White House also jumped to Mineta's defense. Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, noted that if meeting the baggage deadline were easy, it would have been done a long time ago. "That's what the Administration is being forthright about," he said. "That sometimes when Congress passes an artificial deadline and says, `You have 60 days to do something that has never been done before, now go get it done'-sometimes that can be done, sometimes it can't be done."

Reflecting on his own comment, Mineta explains that he was just speaking his mind about the challenges of meeting the deadline. "Trying to evaluate how we are going to physically check 3 million bags a day, you mentally think about the machines, dogs, people, whatever," he said. "It's a tall order." Still, he maintains that the Transportation Department will get the job done: "I am confident that we are going to be able to comply with all the provisions in the law."

Another instance when Mineta's candor upset his peers occurred during a speech last month. At a dinner hosted by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a pro-mass-transit group, Mineta blasted the final Transportation appropriations bill because it cut some highway spending. And he praised Rep. Thomas E. Petri, R-Wis.-who was in the audience-for casting a vote against the bill. Not surprisingly, that statement infuriated Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Transportation Subcommittee, and Rogers later scolded the Secretary over the phone. "If a Republican had done [what Mineta did], he would have gotten a tongue-lashing from the White House," one Capitol Hill staffer said, citing a common refrain among Mineta's critics that the Secretary, as the only Democrat in the Cabinet, is practically unassailable. "That is stupid politics," the aide added.

Flaherty, Mineta's chief of staff, maintains that Rogers and the Secretary have recently smoothed things over. "Hal Rogers and Norm Mineta are old friends," he said, "and both have appeared to work out their differences."

Responding to the criticism about Mineta's frankness, Oberstar says that the Secretary just sometimes forgets that he's no longer on Capitol Hill. "He [has been] very honest, saying what he really thinks, and forgetting momentarily that he's no longer in the House, where you are allowed to revise and extend your remarks," he said. "You can't do that when you're Secretary. What you say is etched in stone from the moment you say it, and then interpreted in different ways."

Smith, the former Mineta aide, has a different take. "Part of the bargain of having Norm Mineta, with his great depth of experience, is that you also get a great deal of honesty-honesty to the President and honesty to the public," she said. "Honesty, frankness, candor, and hard work are the traits of the man, and make Norm sometimes appear impolitic even though he is a skilled politician."

The Challenge Ahead

On December 14, Mineta hosted a Christmas party in the FAA building's cafeteria. The room was filled with dozens of Transportation Department employees, industry lobbyists, and reporters. Donning a red-and-white Santa hat, Mineta stood on a small stage and spoke about his first year as Secretary. He talked about the aviation shutdown, and he praised the hard work and professionalism of his employees. But the bulk of the speech dealt with the department's prodigious new task: building the new Transportation Security Administration.

Employing an estimated 28,000 security screeners, and thousands of air marshals and other personnel, the security administration will be larger than the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Border Patrol-combined. But the real challenge is that it must be up and operational just 10 months from now. "We are talking about 30,000-plus people who we have to recruit, hire, train, test, and deploy," Mineta said. "So this is a very big job." Furthermore, the security administration's jurisdiction will cover more than aviation: The agency will have to provide security for all modes of transportation. "I think it is the biggest challenge that any Transportation Secretary has ever faced," Burnley observed.

Indeed, the aviation security act sets some very tough deadlines for the agency. Besides requiring that beginning no later than January 18, all bags must be screened, the law mandates that airports must deploy explosive-detection machines by December 31, 2002. But achieving that goal will be difficult. At a congressional hearing in December, the FAA reported that only 161 of these detection systems have been installed at airports nationwide, and to meet the law's mandate, more than 1,800 systems still need to be deployed. Moreover, the FAA stated that the price tag for these systems could reach $5 billion.

"I am concerned that the pressure to meet the December 31, 2002, deadline will cause DOT to spend huge amounts of money quickly without any assurance that the equipment they buy will detect the explosives that could bring down an aircraft," said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee.

The other looming deadline is hiring and deploying thousands of screeners and other personnel by November 19, 2002. Congress's intent in passing the aviation security bill was to create a better-trained and better-paid workforce. But the Transportation Department, perhaps sensing how difficult this hiring task will be, announced recently that in considering qualifications of potential screeners, it would accept one year of appropriate work experience in lieu of a high school diploma. Many observers have criticized this decision, arguing that it undercuts the image of the new federal workforce as being more reliable than the old private one.

Making matters more difficult for Mineta, the Senate failed to confirm the Administration's nominee to head this new agency before its winter recess. Nominee John W. Magaw has served as the director of the Secret Service and was the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms after the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents. Most recently, he served as a top official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. During his confirmation hearing late last month, Magaw faced some pointed criticism from Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., for comments he had once made defending the ATF agents at Ruby Ridge who killed the wife and son of white supremacist Randy Weaver. Specter seemed satisfied with Magaw's reply, but one unidentified GOP Senator put a hold on Magaw's nomination. Bush, however, made Magaw a recess appointment on January 7, allowing him to serve at least until the end of the upcoming congressional session.

Despite the difficult deadlines and the delayed confirmation, Mineta and the department remain optimistic. One department official, who wished to remain anonymous, expects the department to able to meet the upcoming January 18 deadline to check all passenger bags for explosives. "We are more and more optimistic that the news for January 18 will be well received," the official said. Whether Mineta can rise to the challenge is anyone's guess, but one thing is certain: Mineta won't be telling his successor that the Transportation Secretary's job is a snap.


On Deadline The Aviation and Transportation Security Act commands the Transportation Department to meet dozens of stringent deadlines in building the new Transportation Security Administration. Below are the key dates.

January 18, 2002: The department must have a system in place to screen all checked passenger airline baggage-by hand, by bag match, or by using dogs.

The undersecretary heading the Transportation Security Administration must complete the plan for training all airport security screeners.

February 17, 2002: The undersecretary must assume all aviation security functions.

May 18, 2002: The undersecretary must report to the congressional authorizing committees about the progress in deploying baggage-screening technology.

November 19, 2002: All airport screeners must be deployed.

The undersecretary must certify to Congress that all screening personnel are in place at the nation's airports.

December 31, 2002: Explosive-detection machines must be in place to screen all checked baggage.

November 19, 2004:Airport operators may elect to employ screeners from the private sector.

SOURCE: U.S. Transportation Department

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