Conversation with Kip Hawley, TSA Administrator (Part 3)
This is Part 3 of a five-part series. Link to whole thing.
BS: Let’s talk about ID checks. I’ve called the no-fly list a list of people so dangerous they cannot be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent we can’t arrest them even under the Patriot Act. Except that’s not even true; anyone, no matter how dangerous they are, can fly without an ID or by using someone else’s boarding pass. And the list itself is filled with people who shouldn’t be on it — dead people, people in jail, and so on — and primarily catches innocents with similar names. Why are you bothering?
KH: Because it works. We just completed a scrub of every name on the no-fly list and cut it in half — essentially cleaning out people who were no longer an active terror threat. We do not publicize how often the no-fly system stops people you would not want on your flight. Several times a week would low-ball it.
Your point about the no-ID and false boarding pass people is a great one. We are moving people who have tools and training to get at that problem. The bigger issue is that TSA is moving in the direction of security that picks up on behavior versus just keying on what we see in your bag. It really would be security theater if all we did was try to find possible weapons in that crunched fifteen seconds and fifteen feet after you anonymously walk through the magnetometer. We do a better job, with less aggravation of ordinary passengers, if we put people-based layers further ahead in the process — behavior observation based on involuntary, observable muscle behavior, canine teams, document verification, etc.
BS: We’ll talk about behavioral profiling later; no fair defending one security measure by pointing to another, completely separate, one. How can you claim ID cards work? Like the liquid ban, all it does is annoy innocent travelers without doing more than inconveniencing any future terrorists. Is it really good enough for you to defend me from terrorists too dumb to Google “print your own boarding pass”?
KH: We are getting at the fake boarding pass and ID issues with our proposal to Congress that would allow us to replace existing document checkers with more highly trained people with tools that would close those gaps. Without effective identity verification, watch lists don’t do much, so this is a top priority.
Having highly trained TSOs performing the document checking function closes a security gap, adds another security layer, and pushes TSA’s security program out in front of the checkpoint.
BS: Let’s move on. Air travelers think you’re capricious. Remember in April when the story went around about the Princeton professor being on a no-fly list because he spoke out against President Bush? His claims were easily debunked, but the real story is that so many people believed it. People believe political activity puts them on the list. People are afraid to complain about being mistreated at checkpoints because they’re afraid it puts them on a list. Is there anything you can do to make this process more transparent?
KH: We need some help on this one. This is the biggest public pain point, dwarfing shoes and baggies.
First off, TSA does not add people to the watch-lists, no matter how cranky you are at a checkpoint. Second, political views have nothing to do with no-flys or selectees. These myths have taken on urban legend status. There are very strict criteria and they are reviewed by lots of separate people in separate agencies: it is for live terror concerns only. The problem comes from random selectees (literally mathematically random) or people who have the same name and birth date as real no-flys. If you can get a boarding pass, you are not on the no-fly list. This problem will go away when Secure Flight starts in 2008, but we can’t seem to shake the false impression that ordinary Americans get put on a “list.” I am open for suggestions on how to make the public “get it.”
BS: It’s hard to believe that there could be hundreds of thousands of people meeting those very strict criteria, and that’s after the list was cut in half! I know the TSA does not control the no-fly and watch lists, but you’re the public face of those lists. You’re the aspect of homeland security that people come into direct contact with. Some people might find out they’re on the list by being arrested, or being shipped off to Syria for torture, but most people find out they’re on the list by being repeatedly searched and questioned for hours at airports.
The main problem with the list is that it’s secret. Who is on the list is secret. Why someone’s on is secret. How someone can get off is secret. There’s no accountability and there’s no transparency. Of course this kind of thing induces paranoia. It’s the sort of thing you read about in history books about East Germany and other police states.
The best thing you can do to improve the problem is redress. People need the ability to see the evidence against them, challenge their accuser, and have a hearing in a neutral court. If they’re guilty of something, arrest them. And if they’re innocent, stop harassing them. It’s basic liberty.
I don’t actually expect you to fix this; the problem is larger than the TSA. But can you tell us something about redress? It’s been promised to us for years now.
KH: Redress issues are divided into two categories: people on the no-fly list and people who have names similar to them.
In our experience, the first group is not a heavy user of the redress process. They typically don’t want anything to do with the U.S. government. Still, if someone is either wrongly put on or kept on, the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) removes him or her immediately. In fact, TSA worked with the TSC to review every name, and that review cut the no-fly list in half. Having said that, once someone is really on the no-fly list, I totally agree with what you said about appeal rights. This is true across the board, not just with no-flys. DHS has recently consolidated redress for all DHS activities into one process called DHS TRIP. If you are mistaken for a real no-fly, you can let TSA know and we provide your information to the airlines, who right now are responsible for identifying no-flys trying to fly. Each airline uses its own system, so some can get you cleared to use kiosks, while others still require a visit to the ticket agent. When Secure Flight is operating, we’ll take that in-house at TSA and the problem should go away.
BS: I still don’t see how that will work, as long as the TSA doesn’t have control over who gets on or off the list.