Kip Hawley wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal on airport security. In it, he says so many sensible things that people have been forwarding it to me with comments like “did you ghostwrite this?” and “it looks like you won an argument” and “how did you convince him?”
(Sadly, the essay was published in the Journal, which means it won’t be freely available on the Internet forever. Because of that, I’m going to quote from it liberally. And if anyone finds a permanent URL for this, I’ll add it here.)
Any effort to rebuild TSA and get airport security right in the U.S. has to start with two basic principles:
First, the TSA’s mission is to prevent a catastrophic attack on the transportation system, not to ensure that every single passenger can avoid harm while traveling. Much of the friction in the system today results from rules that are direct responses to how we were attacked on 9/11. But it’s simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife. The cockpit doors have been reinforced, and passengers, flight crews and air marshals would intervene.
This sounds a lot like me (2005):
Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back.
I’m less into sky marshals than he is.
Second, the TSA’s job is to manage risk, not to enforce regulations. Terrorists are adaptive, and we need to be adaptive, too. Regulations are always playing catch-up, because terrorists design their plots around the loopholes.
Me in 2008:
It’s this fetish-like focus on tactics that results in the security follies at airports. We ban guns and knives, and terrorists use box-cutters. We take away box-cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, so they use liquids. We take away liquids, and they’re going to do something else. Or they’ll ignore airplanes entirely and attack a school, church, theatre, stadium, shopping mall, airport terminal outside the security area, or any of the other places where people pack together tightly.
These are stupid games, so let’s stop playing.
He disses Trusted Traveler programs, where known people are allowed bypass some security measures:
I had hoped to advance the idea of a Registered Traveler program, but the second that you create a population of travelers who are considered “trusted,” that category of fliers moves to the top of al Qaeda’s training list, whether they are old, young, white, Asian, military, civilian, male or female. The men who bombed the London Underground in July 2005 would all have been eligible for the Registered Traveler cards we were developing at the time. No realistic amount of prescreening can alleviate this threat when al Qaeda is working to recruit “clean” agents. TSA dropped the idea on my watch — though new versions of it continue to pop up.
Me in 2004:
What the Trusted Traveler program does is create two different access paths into the airport: high security and low security. The intent is that only good guys will take the low-security path, and the bad guys will be forced to take the high-security path, but it rarely works out that way. You have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to take the low-security path.
Hawley’s essay ends with a list of recommendations for change, and they are mostly good:
What would a better system look like? If politicians gave the TSA some political cover, the agency could institute the following changes before the start of the summer travel season:
1. No more banned items: Aside from obvious weapons capable of fast, multiple killings — such as guns, toxins and explosive devices — it is time to end the TSA’s use of well-trained security officers as kindergarten teachers to millions of passengers a day. The list of banned items has created an “Easter-egg hunt” mentality at the TSA. Worse, banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack. Lighters are banned? The next attack will use an electric trigger.
Me in 2009:
Return passenger screening to pre-9/11 levels.
2. Allow all liquids: Simple checkpoint signage, a small software update and some traffic management are all that stand between you and bringing all your liquids on every U.S. flight. Really.
This is referring to a point he makes earlier in his essay:
I was initially against a ban on liquids as well, because I thought that, with proper briefing, TSA officers could stop al Qaeda’s new liquid bombs. Unfortunately, al Qaeda’s advancing skill with hydrogen-peroxide-based bombs made a total liquid ban necessary for a brief period and a restriction on the amount of liquid one could carry on a plane necessary thereafter.
Existing scanners could allow passengers to carry on any amount of liquid they want, so long as they put it in the gray bins. The scanners have yet to be used in this way because of concern for the large number of false alarms and delays that they could cause. When I left TSA in 2009, the plan was to designate “liquid lanes” where waits might be longer but passengers could board with snow globes, beauty products or booze. That plan is still sitting on someone’s desk.
I have been complaining about the liquids ban for years, but Hawley’s comment confuses me. He says that hydrogen-peroxide based bombs — these are the bombs that are too dangerous to bring on board in 4-oz. bottles, but perfectly fine in four 1-oz bottles combined after the checkpoints — can be detected with existing scanners, not with new scanners using new technology. Does anyone know what he’s talking about?
3. Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable: No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers. We need to leverage that ability. TSA officers should have more discretion to interact with passengers and to work in looser teams throughout airports. And TSA’s leaders must be prepared to support initiative even when officers make mistakes. Currently, independence on the ground is more likely to lead to discipline than reward.
This is a great idea, but it’s going to cost money. Being a TSA screener is a pretty lousy job. Morale is poor: “In surveys on employee morale and job satisfaction, TSA often performs poorly compared to other government agencies. In 2010 TSA ranked 220 out of 224 government agency subcomponents for employee satisfaction.” Pay is low: “The men and women at the front lines of the battle to keep the skies safe are among the lowest paid of all federal employees, and they have one of the highest injury rates.” And there is traditionally a high turnover: 20% in 2008. The 2011 decision allowing TSA workers to unionize will help this somewhat, but for it to really work, the rules can’t be this limiting: “the paper outlining his decision precludes negotiations on security policies, pay, pensions and compensation, proficiency testing, job qualifications and discipline standards. It also will prohibit screeners from striking or engaging in work slowdowns.”
TSA workers who are smart, flexible, and show initiative will cost money, and that’ll be difficult when the TSA’s budget is being cut.
4. Eliminate baggage fees: Much of the pain at TSA checkpoints these days can be attributed to passengers overstuffing their carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees. The airlines had their reasons for implementing these fees, but the result has been a checkpoint nightmare. Airlines might increase ticket prices slightly to compensate for the lost revenue, but the main impact would be that checkpoint screening for everybody will be faster and safer.
Another great idea, but I don’t see how we can do it without passing a law forbidding airlines to charge those fees. Over the past few years, airlines have drastically increased fees as a revenue source. Sneaking in extra charges allows them to advertise lower prices, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
5. Randomize security: Predictability is deadly. Banned-item lists, rigid protocols — if terrorists know what to expect at the airport, they have a greater chance of evading our system.
This would be a disaster. Actually, I’m surprised Hawley even mentions it, given that he wrote this a few paragraphs earlier:
One brilliant bit of streamlining from the consultants: It turned out that if the outline of two footprints was drawn on a mat in the area for using metal-detecting wands, most people stepped on the feet with no prompting and spread their legs in the most efficient stance. Every second counts when you’re processing thousands of passengers a day.
Randomization would slow checkpoints down to a crawl, as well as anger passengers. Do I have to take my shoes off or not? Does my computer go in the bin or not? (Even the weird but mostly consistent rules about laptops vs. iPads is annoying people.) Yesterday, liquids were allowed — today they’re banned. But at this airport, the TSA is confiscating anything with more than two ounces of aluminum and questioning people carrying Tom Clancy novels.
I’m not even convinced this would be a hardship for the terrorists. I’ve gotten really good at avoiding lanes with full-body scanners, and presumably the terrorists will simply assume that all security regulations are in force at all times. I’d like to see a cost-benefit analysis of this sort of thing first.
Hawley’s concluding paragraph:
In America, any successful attack — no matter how small — is likely to lead to a series of public recriminations and witch hunts. But security is a series of trade-offs. We’ve made it through the 10 years after 9/11 without another attack, something that was not a given. But no security system can be maintained over the long term without public support and cooperation. If Americans are ready to embrace risk, it is time to strike a new balance.
I agree with this. Sadly, I’m not optimistic for change anytime soon. There’s one point Hawley makes, but I don’t think he makes it strongly enough. He says:
I wanted to reduce the amount of time that officers spent searching for low-risk objects, but politics intervened at every turn. Lighters were untouchable, having been banned by an act of Congress. And despite the radically reduced risk that knives and box cutters presented in the post-9/11 world, allowing them back on board was considered too emotionally charged for the American public.
This is the fundamental political problem of airport security: it’s in nobody’s self-interest to take a stand for what might appear to be reduced security. Imagine that the TSA management announces a new rule that box cutters are now okay, and that they respond to critics by explaining that the current risks to airplanes don’t warrant prohibiting them. Even if they’re right, they’re open to attacks from political opponents that they’re not taking terrorism seriously enough. And if they’re wrong, their careers are over.
It’s even worse when it’s elected officials who have to make the decision. Which congressman is going to jeopardize his political career by standing up and saying that the cigarette lighter ban is stupid and should be repealed? It’s all political risk, and no political gain.
We have the same problem with the no-fly list: Congress mandates that the TSA match passengers against these lists. Rolling this back is politically difficult at the best of times, and impossible in today’s climate, even if the TSA decided it wanted to do so.
I am very impressed with Hawley’s essay. I do wonder where it came from. This wasn’t the same argument Hawley made when I debated him last month on the Economist website. This definitely wasn’t the same argument he made when I interviewed him in 2007, when he was still head of the TSA. But it’s great to read today.
Hopefully, someone is listening. And hopefully, our social climate will change so that these sorts of changes become politically possible.
ETA (4/16): Slashdot thread.
Posted on April 16, 2012 at 12:29 PM •