Ex-TSA chief suggests letting security screeners take more initiative

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP file photo

Former Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley is free to speak his mind now that he’s on a book tour. So he reacted Thursday to news that two TSA screeners at Los Angeles International Airport had been arrested on drug trafficking and corruption charges. “It’s a perfect example of the urgency,” he said, that “never lets TSA get out of its emergency mode to make itself sustainable and supported by the American people.”

Speaking to The George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, Hawley explained how he’d like to see the agency move away from its “ossified systems” that rely on standard operating procedure to ones that allow greater initiative by officers at different checkpoints, holding them accountable and paying them for performance.

In his new book, Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security (Palgrave Macmillan), Hawley, who ran TSA from 2005 to early 2009, offers a series of reforms that some would consider radical: ending all bans on air passenger carry-on items except for obvious weapons like guns, toxins and explosives; doing away with airport baggage fees, which encourage more carry-on items; and randomizing security by making it less predictable and leaving more to the judgment of screeners.

When TSA started out organizing 450 airports after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hawley said, “they put a high premium on making them consistent.” Within a few years, the procedures had “gotten so dense, you’d hire someone and say, ‘Welcome aboard, but don’t think,’ and they’d go on working under a pay system that protects their retirement after 30 years,” he said. But at TSA, there is performance accountability, he noted, adding “we can’t go to Congress and say, ‘Sorry the plane blew up, but we followed standard operating procedures.’ There’s no place to hide.”

Hawley would give each checkpoint greater discretion, so that the chief motivator of a TSA officer would be meeting “a high performance metric, with the front-line guys as committed as the administration.” The “flip side,” he added, is that “if you allow people to think, they will make mistakes.”

Performance-based management, Hawley said, cannot happen with a union mind-set that assumes the job involves following rules to get regular pay raises, regardless of one’s views on unions. (TSA workers in 2011 voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Government Employees.)

Hawley would be open to greater privatization of airport screening, as some in Congress have proposed, but he would change the rules and demand more private sector innovation. He once declined to sign a proposed contract for the privatization of screening at San Francisco International Airport, asking, “'Where are the performance incentives, where are the cost savings?’ The contract was just TSA standard procedures but with outsourcing the people. If American private screeners gave us a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge system that would be fantastic. It might start some competition.”

He decided to write his book -- which required a year’s worth of clearance time with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI and TSA -- because he realized on his final day in office that there were a lot of secret “learnings” he might share with the public to “create a more-informed discussion.” Having drawn up timelines of key events in TSA’s history, one for publicly known news and a separate one for classified activity, he was struck by the gap. “I decided once you’ve shown all the spy stories you can, then we could discuss the larger issue of trust and accountability to see what the public really wants and what tradeoffs it is willing to make.”

Hawley said he has no regrets about the different iterations of airport screening imaging technology that caused some passenger embarrassment and raised objections from privacy advocates. “Technology is great, particularly communications technology,” he said. The airport ATEX machines that screen liquids are effective and can have their software updated -- perhaps even through the open-source approach in the future, he said. “But terrorists can look at patents and see” ways around technology, he said. “There’s no more advanced technology on earth than the human brain, which is flexible.” That is why he’d like TSA to focus less on technology and more on passenger behavior, and give the public more leeway in deciding whether they wish to carry on certain items if it means a longer wait while the objects are placed in the gray bins for scanning.

In this “age of the iPhone,” mishaps can “instantly go viral,” he said. “It’s harder to draw a huge media contingent to discuss your successes.” But TSA is pushing back to defend officers, uploading its own videos to show what really happened. “They don’t like poking you any more than you want them to,” he said.

One reason the airport security operations in Israel have drawn so much admiration for thoroughness, Hawley said, is the Israeli people agree on security needs. In the United States, the public is divided -- indeed, just months after the 2009 attempted “Christmas bombing” by the Nigerian who boarded a plane with explosives in his underwear, Congress renewed consideration of bills to restrict airport body scanners, he said.

One way to win back the public is to give screeners flexibility to use random checks and their own judgment to decide who looks suspicious, profiling not by appearance (al Qaeda can cheaply recruit bombers who don’t look the part, he notes), but by behavior, such as involuntary muscle movement. An example of local TSA checkpoint officials taking initiative was after a report from South Carolina about possible terrorist bombs hidden in remotely controlled toys. After obtaining declassified details from the National Counter Terrorism Center, TSA officials announced publicly that any remote toys discovered on passengers would be dismantled. No new regulations were needed.

Hawley is not a fan of TSA’s current trusted traveler plans, which allow frequent fliers to apply in advance for accelerated screening. “I would rather fix it for everybody,” he said. “Al Qaeda too has frequent fliers whom they can recruit.” The Israelis have shown that it doesn’t matter if the person is trusted if they don’t even know they are carrying a bomb.

Another way to reduce inconvenience to the public is for TSA to rely on the passenger lists it receives 72 hours before flights, which allow comparisons with watch lists and other intelligence filters. He worries that if those lists are misused and citizen privacy is violated, then Congress could discontinue them. TSA’s finest moment, in Hawley’s view, was on Aug. 10, 2006, the day the British revealed a series of planned terrorist attacks on airliners using liquid explosives. “That day we changed how we do our job, with air marshals covering all flights and the workforce had its highest attendance rate,” he said.

Hawley calls the current TSA chief John Pistole a man of “utmost integrity,” and wishes he would be given the same nonpolitical 10-year term as the FBI director.

Having spent three and a half years as head of TSA, its longest serving administrator, Hawley said he has no plans to join a future presidential administration.

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