CNN has an article written by Kip Hawley on TSA changes that he feels needs to be made. Hawley was in charge of the TSA from 2005-2009 and instituted many of the stupid “security theater” practices that he now says should change. I’ll avoid the irony of that and instead focus on the content of his article which can be found here on CNN’s website.

CNN Opinion piece "TSA, change the airport security mindset" by Kip Hawley
CNN Opinion piece “TSA, change the airport security mindset” by Kip Hawley

As The New York Times correctly pointed out in an editorial: “T.S.A. asks its officers to enforce rules of questionable utility while giving them remarkably little discretion. … That is a huge waste of human talent.”

My number one gripe with the TSA. The NY Times nicely calls them “rules of questionable utility”, I call them flat out stupid. The ban on containers with X ounces on them for example. Nothing prevents a terrorist from bringing multiple smaller containers to achieve the same effect. There is a ban on knives but any card-carrying, tin-foil hat wearing, Jason Bourne wannabe conspiracy theorist will quickly tell you that a pen or pencil or shoelace will kill just as quickly. Prison inmates have been shanking each other with less for years.

Then you get into foolishness like those body scanners that may or may not cause cancer. You end up with a choice of being irradiated and having your picture put on the internet (the *detailed* body scans weren’t supposed to be stored or accessible, but they were) or being publicly shamed and frisked by an angry TSA employee. They wouldn’t let anyone in the public test the equipment (which was proven defeatable by the way), just saying “trust me it’s safe”. And now “for some reason” they are being withdrawn from airports.

But the frustrating bit is no matter how much you talk or argue or plead with them the response is always “I’m just following orders” while they pat down your screaming two year old. It doesn’t matter if you have logic on your side. And if you raise too much of a ruckus then you risk being put on a TSA watchlist. Or worse being dragged off to be “questioned” for hours and THEN being put on a watchlist.

Security officers are in the best position to use their experience and training and detect a threat not covered in the Standard Operating Procedure. Al Qaeda knows the rules and designs its attacks to comply with it. To stop attacks, officers thinking on their own needs to be encouraged, not disciplined.

Once officers are allowed to think for themselves, it opens the door for mistakes and criticism. But people can be taught the fundamentals of risk management, which provides a framework for making informed judgments.

This is how the countries with “good” security do it. Isreal just has a guy look you in the eyes and ask where you’re going and the purpose of your visit. But in order to do that, we will have to somehow introduce a radical shift in the collective psyche of the current workforce (not likely) or rehire the vast majority of current TSA employees (likely). Most of my experience with TSA security folks says they can’t handle this. I think a lot of people would agree with me. You need to hire “smarter” employees ($$$), train them better ($$$), give them more responsibility, and reward them better ($$$) for their efforts. It’s a complete change from the ground up.

Bad guys have nothing better to do than study airport security and can find loopholes better than any of us can. You have to have nimble-minded security in place that is flexible enough to see those holes and fill them just as effectively as the the bad guys exploit them.

Here are Hawley’s points of change:

  • The intrusive pat-down needs to be discontinued in favor of a lighter technique supplemented with available technologies.

Do you really mean to tell me there isn’t a wand available to detect a weapon and instead you have to rely on fondling my testes to find these weapons?

  • The “prohibited items” list needs to be radically reduced to ban only real security threats such as explosives and toxins. As far as carrying knives, the FAA should make it a serious federal offense to intimidate a member of the flight crew or another passenger with a blade — and then TSA can remove blades from the prohibited list. Blades represent virtually no threat to the aircraft at this point. And the baggie rule should be dropped. Current technology allows threat liquids to be detected when they are taken out of the carry-on and scanned in a bin.

Yes. Let’s stick to banning stuff that really should not be on a plane unless you plan to hijack it. Let TSA employees use a little common sense in confiscating things.

  • Passengers should be chosen randomly for shoes and coat inspections. Precheck programs for frequent fliers that expedite security screening should be applied to all travelers.

The pre-check has always been a sticking point for me. You might have a family of four, a complete non-threat, going to Disneyland that has never heard of pre-screening that then has to go through the full security check. Meanwhile a single bad guy pre-screens himself (because he has the means and resources and will to do so) and bypasses the security line. I do agree with random, really random, non-profiled spot checks that get an increased or more-thorough check. Not anyone who “looks” suspicious, nor every 5th person because those are easy for the bad guys to avoid getting picked.

  • Workers need to be retrained in risk management and encouraged to use their own judgment and experience, consulting with team members, to make prudent discretionary security calls.

Again, I don’t think the current body of employees can handle this. Sure some can, but not all. Extensive re-hiring is going to be needed.

  • The pay-for-performance system for transportation security officers needs to be reinstated. When transportation security officers unionized, merit pay was replaced by the seniority system — essentially, if officers follow the standard operating procedure, they get regular pay raises up till retirement regardless of how well they perform.

I’m not sure how to solve the union/non-union issue. Pay-for-performance has it’s own set of cons that get in the way as well. What if you are measured by how many “stops” you get? Then we end up with a NY City-like problem with their police officers having to meet “quotas” that don’t officially exist.

  • We need to allow real private-sector innovation to compete and play a more meaningful role in security. Today, a fig leaf system is in place that calls itself “private sector” but is in reality just personnel outsourcing. These outsourced employees have to follow the TSA process exactly — the only difference is that they get to charge an 8% markup on all their expenses. We need to get new ideas from outside the TSA that can be tested at our checkpoints.

Private sector usually has the good ideas. And as a taxpayer, I’m in favor of not paying an extra 8% for anything.