Conversation with Kip Hawley, TSA Administrator (Part 4)
This is Part 4 of a five-part series. Link to whole thing.
BS: What about Registered Traveler? When TSA first started talking about the program, the plan was to divide people into two categories: more trusted people who get less screening, and less trusted people who get more screening. This opened an enormous security hole; whenever you create an easy way and a hard way through security, you invite the bad guys to take the easier way. Since then, it’s transformed into a way for people to pay for better screening equipment and faster processing—a great idea with no security downsides. Given that, why bother with the background checks at all? What else is it besides a way for a potential terrorist to spend $60 and find out if the government is on to them?
KH: Registered Traveler (RT) is a promising program but suffers from unrealistic expectations. The idea—that you and I aren’t really risks and we should be screened less so that TSA can apply scarce resources on the more likely terrorist—makes sense and got branded as RT. The problem is that with two million people a day, how can we tell them apart in an effective way? We know terrorists use people who are not on watch lists and who don’t have criminal convictions, so we can’t use those criteria alone. Right now, I’ve said that RT is behind Secure Flight in priority and that TSA is open to working with private sector entities to facilitate RT, but we will not fund it, reduce overall security, or inconvenience regular travelers. As private companies deploy extra security above what TSA does, we can change the screening process accordingly. It has to be more than a front-of-the-line pass, and I think there are some innovations coming out in the year ahead that will better define what RT can become.
BS: Let’s talk about behavioral profiling. I’ve long thought that most of airline security could be ditched in favor of well-trained guards, both in and out of uniform, wandering the crowds looking for suspicious behavior. Can you talk about some of the things you’re doing along those lines, and especially ways to prevent this from turning into just another form of racial profiling?
KH: Moving security out from behind the checkpoint is a big priority for us. First, it gives us the opportunity to pick up a threat a lot earlier. Taking away weapons or explosives at the checkpoint is stopping the plot at nearly the last possible moment. Obviously, a good security system aims at stopping attacks well before that. That’s why we have many layers of security (intel, law enforcement, behavior detection, etc.) to get to that person well before the security checkpoint. When a threat gets to the checkpoint, we’re operating on his/her terms—they pick when, where, and how they present themselves to us. We want to pick up the cues on our terms, before they’re ready, even if they’re just at the surveillance stage.
We use a system of behavior observation that is based on the science that demonstrates that there are certain involuntary, subconscious actions that can betray a person’s hostile intent. For instance, there are tiny—but noticeable to the trained person—movements in a person’s facial muscles when they have certain emotions. It is very different from the stress we all show when we’re anxious about missing the flight due to, say, a long security line. This is true across race, gender, age, ethnicity, etc. It is our way of not falling into the trap where we predict what a terrorist is going to look like. We know they use people who “look like” terrorists, but they also use people who do not, perhaps thinking that we cue only off of what the 9/11 hijackers looked like.
Our Behavior Detection teams routinely—and quietly—identify problem people just through observable behavior cues. More than 150 people have been identified by our teams, turned over to law enforcement, and subsequently arrested. This layer is invisible to the public, but don’t discount it, because it may be the most effective. We publicize non-terrorist-related successes like a murder suspect caught in Minneapolis and a bank robber caught in Philadelphia.
Most common are people showing phony documents, but we have even picked out undercover operatives—including our own. One individual, identified by a TSO in late May and not allowed to fly, was killed in a police shoot-out five days later. Additionally, several individuals have been of interest from the counter-terrorism perspective. With just this limited deployment of Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs), we have identified more people of counterterrorism interest than all the people combined caught with prohibited items. Look for us to continue to look at ways that highlight problem people rather than just problem objects.
BS: That’s really good news, and I think it’s the most promising new security measure you’ve got. Although, honestly, bragging about capturing a guy for wearing a fake military uniform just makes you look silly.
Part 5: Keeping the bomb off the plane