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Former TSA chief: Airport security in America is 'broken'

Courtesy of Kip Hawley
Kip Hawley, former administrator for the Transportation Security Administration, says the agency's approach to airport security isCourtesy of Kip Hawley

As head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from 2005 to 2009, Kip Hawley was the public face of an agency despised by millions of Americans. Today, he says that hatred is understandable because the agency’s approach to airport security is “broken,” arguing that it should forgo standardized procedures and a focus on prohibited items in favor of increased flexibility and mitigating risk.

Hawley elaborates on the concept in a new book, out today, called “Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security” (Palgrave Macmillan, $27), co-written with Nathan Means. In it, he reveals the thinking behind the agency’s actions, the problems they’ve caused — in terms of cost, wasted effort and an angry public — and the possibility that someday we may be able to travel with our liquids, lacrosse sticks and large jars of peanut butter. 

Overhead Bin caught up with Hawley — on an Amtrak train, for what it’s worth — and asked him about the TSA's future. Here's a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

Q: You've suggested that the U.S. approach to security is “wrongheaded.” Why do you say that?
A:  After 9/11, we moved so fast to protect ourselves against further attack that we put in place security measures that were stronger. But in the 10 years since, al-Qaida has proved to be an adaptive enemy. They simply take the defenses that they see and work around them to try something else. The problem at TSA is that each brick that’s been put up has been put up in a wall and stays there even after the vulnerabilities they address have been closed.

Timeline: The evolution of airport security

Courtesy of Kip Hawley

Q: So what do you suggest instead?
A:  TSA needs to step up and clean out the regulatory phase of security which now essentially lists what’s prohibited and then you go look for things on that list. That may have worked in the past, but it doesn’t work now. It drives passengers crazy and, quite frankly, it drives the TSOs [Transportation Security Officers] crazy because they’re asked to do things don’t really improve security.

Q: Many of the prohibited items can and, in some cases, have been used as weapons. Are you saying that passengers should be able to bring knives, etc., on board? 
A:  Why are we going through all this stuff about blades and tools and prohibited items? You may be able to get one person or two people with a knife but you’re not going to take over a plane. All the economic cost and the public cost of officers looking in bags for tiny knives and things like that – pull that off their plate and say we need you to focus on toxins and explosive components. That makes their job very focused. They’ll do a better job and the lines will move faster.

Q: What about limiting liquids to 3.4 ounces or less?
A:  When we put the [one-quart, zip-topped] bag rule in place, it was supposed to be a temporary measure – only until we developed the software that would be able to go in the advanced X-ray machines to detect threat liquids. We completed that in 2008, but the dispute is ongoing over whether the public would want to stand in lines if the false positives are too high.

That’s not a choice the government should make unilaterally. I think they should ask the public. Set up some lanes for people who want to bring all their liquids. The lines will be longer [due to more intensive screening, false positives, etc.] but you’ll be able to bring whatever you want.

Q: So the idea, as you say in the book, is to move away from banning specific items and toward a system that accepts reasonable levels of risk. What do you mean by that?
A: The only way to make flying 100 percent safe is to ground the airplanes. Instead, we need to have a discussion of risk-management and include the public. Take pat-downs. Are we willing to go through these intrusive pat-downs so people like [underwear bomber Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab won’t toast their private parts or possibly kill one or two people on a plane? Or do we prefer to take that risk and not have these intrusive pat-downs? Where I draw the line is catastrophic loss, meaning if you can blow up a plane, you have to do whatever it takes to not let that happen.

Q: Why weren’t such efforts implemented when you headed the agency? 
A:  A lot of it has to do with the internal systems at TSA and standard operating procedures that say if TSOs do everything exactly by the book, they’re covered. We also never had the time or political support to pull back the measures that were implemented in response to specific threats. It took an act of Congress to let lighters back on planes even though al-Qaida had already moved on to electronic detonators. It’s very hard to make changes when those changes lead to outcries that there will be blood in the aisles.

Q: TSA has made some other changes recently, including rolling out the PreCheck registered traveler program and allowing children under 12 to leave their shoes on during screening. How would you grade their efforts?
A:  PreCheck is great; they’re using the information that they have from the airlines to encode travelers’ boarding passes. That’s really using intelligence at the checkpoint. It’s probably not perfect, but they’re trying to do the right thing.

On loosening the rules for shoes, I don’t understand that. Age has never been a successful risk-based dividing line, so you can’t exempt a whole category of people.

Q: You’ve laid out a five-point plan for the approach to security that you advocate, including eliminating the ban on prohibited items and allowing all liquids — both of which would free up resources, giving TSOs more flexibility, randomizing security and eliminating baggage fees to reduce some of the crush and frustration at screening checkpoints. Which do you think we’ll see first?
A:  You could do them all between now and Memorial Day, but I don’t think [TSA Administrator] John Pistole has the latitude any more than I would to magically wave a wand and make it happen. It will take a whole big effort. The hold-up isn’t the technology; it’s really making the judgment and standing behind it.

Q: And, finally, what do you say to the people who essentially agree with your premise that airport security is broken but that TSA can’t ever be fixed and should just be abolished?
A: Then what? If you abolish it, does someone else take over that function or are you willing to let planes be blown out of the sky? People talk about moving it into another department, changing its name — those are press releases from people who like to pontificate, but you’re not addressing the underlying problem. I say skip that bull---- and fix the underlying problem. That’s what needs to happen.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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