Kip Hawley, head of the TSA, has responded to my airport security penetration testing, published in The Atlantic.
Unfortunately, there’s not really anything to his response. It’s obvious he doesn’t want to admit that they’ve been checking ID’s all this time to no purpose whatsoever, so he just emits vague generalities like a frightened squid filling the water with ink. Yes, some of the stunts in article are silly (who cares if people fly with Hezbollah T-shirts?) so that gives him an opportunity to minimize the real issues.
Watch-lists and identity checks are important and effective security measures. We identify dozens of terrorist-related individuals a week and stop No-Flys regularly with our watch-list process.
It is simply impossible that the TSA catches dozens of terrorists every week. If it were true, the administration would be trumpeting this all over the press—it would be an amazing success story in their war on terrorism. But note that Hawley doesn’t exactly say that; he calls them “terrorist-related individuals.” Which means exactly what? People so dangerous they can’t be allowed to fly for any reason, yet so innocent they can’t be arrested—even under the provisions of the Patriot Act.
And if Secretary Chertoff is telling the truth when he says that there are only 2,500 people on the no-fly list and fewer than 16,000 people on the selectee list—they’re the ones that get extra screening—and that most of them live outside the U.S., then it is just plain impossible that the TSA identifies “dozens” of these people every week. The math just doesn’t make sense.
And I also don’t believe this:
Behavior detection works and we have 2,000 trained officers at airports today. They alert us to people who may pose a threat but who may also have items that could elude other layers of physical security.
It does work, but I don’t see the TSA doing it properly. (Fly El Al if you want to see it done properly.) But what I think Hawley is doing is engaging in a little bit of psychological manipulation. Like sky marshals, the real benefit of behavior detection isn’t whether or not you do it but whether or not the bad guys believe you’re doing it. If they think you are doing behavior detection at security checkpoints, or have sky marshals on every airplane, then you don’t actually have to do it. It’s the threat that’s the deterrent, not the actual security system.
This doesn’t impress me, either:
Items carried on the person, be they a ‘beer belly’ or concealed objects in very private areas, are why we are buying over 100 whole body imagers in upcoming months and will deploy more over time. In the meantime, we use hand-held devices that detect hydrogen peroxide and other explosives compounds as well as targeted pat-downs that require private screening.
Optional security measures don’t work, because the bad guys will opt not to use them. It’s like those air-puff machines at some airports now. They’re probably great at detecting explosive residue off clothing, but every time I have seen the machines in operation, the passengers have the option whether to go through the lane with them or another lane. What possible good is that?
The closest thing to a real response from Hawley is that the terrorists might get caught stealing credit cards.
Using stolen credit cards and false documents as a way to get around watch-lists makes the point that forcing terrorists to use increasingly risky tactics has its own security value.
He’s right about that. And, truth be told, that was my sloppiest answer during the original interview. Thinking about it afterwards, it’s far more likely is that someone with a clean record and a legal credit card will buy the various plane tickets.
This is new:
Boarding pass scanners and encryption are being tested in eight airports now and more will be coming.
Ignoring for a moment that “eight airports” nonsense—unless you do it at every airport, the bad guys will choose the airport where you don’t do it to launch their attack—this is an excellent idea. The reason my attack works, the reason I can get through TSA checkpoints with a fake boarding pass, is that the TSA never confirms that the information on the boarding pass matches a legitimate reservation. If all TSA checkpoints had boarding pass scanners that connected to the airlines’ computers, this attack would not work. (Interestingly enough, I noticed exactly this system at the Dublin airport earlier this month.)
Stopping the “James Bond” terrorist is truly a team effort and I whole-heartedly agree that the best way to stop those attacks is with intelligence and law enforcement working together.
This isn’t about “Stopping the ‘James Bond’ terrorist,” it’s about stopping terrorism. And if all this focus on airports, even assuming it starts working, shifts the terrorists to other targets, we haven’t gotten a whole lot of security for our money.
FYI: I did a long interview with Kip Hawley last year. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend you do. I pressed him on these and many other points, and didn’t get very good answers then, either.
EDITED TO ADD (10/28): Kip Hawley responds in comments. Yes, it’s him.
EDITED TO ADD (11/17): Another article on those boarding pass verifiers.
Posted on October 23, 2008 at 6:24 AM •