Former TSA Head Admits the TSA Sucks

According to Kip Hawley the TSA’s airport security system is broken:

Airport security in America is broken. I should know. For 3½ years–from my confirmation in July 2005 to President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009–I served as the head of the Transportation Security Administration.

You know what Kip? Fuck you. You’re part of the problem. The very first words out of your mouth should be “I’m sorry.” Anything less is just not good enough.

You know the TSA. We’re the ones who make you take off your shoes before padding through a metal detector in your socks (hopefully without holes in them). We’re the ones who make you throw out your water bottles. We’re the ones who end up on the evening news when someone’s grandma gets patted down or a child’s toy gets confiscated as a security risk. If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably hate us.

I’ve flown once since 9/11. I still hate you. I hated you even before I flew. You know why I hated you, even though I hadn’t flown? Probably not. It’s because I have something called empathy for other people. I realize that’s a foreign concept for you, but you really should try it out.

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.

We’ve been telling you this for YEARS, you dumb son of a bitch! Years!

Sigh. According to Hawley, it’s not all his fault, and I have to admit his explanation rings true:

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.

We did succeed in getting some items (small scissors, ice skates) off the list of prohibited items. And we had explosives experts retrain the entire work force in terrorist tradecraft and bomb-making. Most important, Charlie Allen, the chief of intelligence for the Department of Homeland Security, tied the TSA into the wider world of U.S. intelligence, arranging for our leadership to participate in the daily counterterrorism video conference chaired from the White House. With a constant stream of live threat reporting to start each day, I was done with playing defense.

Still, he’s kind of clueless:

Taking your shoes off for security is probably your least favorite part of flying these days. Mine, too.

Actually, most offensive part is when the TSA pricks look at us naked and touch us in places that strangers shouldn’t touch us. I realize that system came online after Hawley left the TSA, but it was going through procurement while he was in charge.

Eventually, he gets to a list of changes he proposes, most of which are pretty 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…

2. Allow all liquids…

3. Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable…

The TSA’s basic problem with accountability is that it is responsible for enforcing its own standards. That’s not very effective, especially since TSA employees have civil service protections that make them hard to fire. They aren’t law enforcement officers, so they don’t need to be government employees. The best way to hold airport security employees accountable is to lay off 90% of TSA employees and go back to the private security system we had before. Turn the remaining TSA officers into inspectors that hold the private system accountable.

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…

You could also try to make baggage handling safer and more efficient. Stop losing bags. Stop letting baggage handlers and TSA officers steal stuff. All that security, and someone can still walk off with anything you check. That’s why people carry stuff on.

To be effective, airport security needs to embrace flexibility and risk management–principles that it is difficult for both the bureaucracy and the public to accept. The public wants the airport experience to be predictable, hassle-free and airtight and for it to keep us 100% safe. But 100% safety is unattainable. Embracing a bit of risk could reduce the hassle of today’s airport experience while making us safer at the same time.

Again, some of us have been telling you that for years.

–Mr. Hawley is the author of “Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security,” to be published April 24 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Like we didn’t see that coming…

Security expert Bruce Schneier, who has been explaining the TSA’s errors for years, has posted his reaction, which is basically that Hawley has finally caught up to the rest of us. Also, Hawley was saying something completely different as recently as one month ago.

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