Skip to content

Transportation Security Perspective: Interview with former TSA administrator Kip Hawley

09/17/2012 - Kip Hawley is the former administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Hawley left his job in Silicon Valley a month after the 9-11 attacks to help build the new agency. In mid-2005, he returned to become the agency’s fourth administrator until January 2009. During his tenure, he facilitated a transformation of the TSA's culture and operations. The changes Hawley spearheaded during this overhaul included improving training, upgrading technology, and dramatically extending public outreach. Hawley has since retired from government service and is currently a private consultant living in Pebble Beach, California. In addition, he has authored a book, Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security (published by Palgrave Macmillan), which is his account of how the TSA tried to stay ahead of terrorists intent on attacking aviation targets as well as transportation targets in general. Security Management spoke with Hawley about his tenure at TSA and his thoughts on what the agency could do to make flying easier without compromising security.

In your book, you write “Security is always about tradeoffs; for the TSA team, the goal was creating a checkpoint worthy of the ‘never again’ mantra.” Have the American people traded too much of their privacy, in your opinion, when they enter the security checkpoint?

I think people have had it with what they see today. The bond that existed after 9-11 between the public and the security effort has been broken. It needs to get fixed, and it’s now to the point that it’s a security issue because the public and the TSA are so far apart.

The key question is whether “never again” is the right mantra for our security? Does never again mean never allowing an attack on an American or an American facility again? I don’t think that’s what it means. It’s gone from that immediate reaction of never again—we’re never going to allow those guys to hit us again—to more risk management, which is long-term, sustainable security.

If you had the opportunity to return to your old job, what’s the first change you would make to increase transportation security?

Take the prohibited items list and remove virtually everything from it. The things we’re worried about in an aircraft are things that can do catastrophic damage or kill a lot of people quickly. In my view, they are bomb components, guns, and toxins. Objects you can commit a crime with—sharp instruments, baseball bats, Swiss Army knives—are not capable of taking down a plane. And they cause so many logjams at the checkpoint. Transportation security officers (TSOs) should focus on what’s truly dangerous. The TSA could also lift a lot of resources that they have tied up at the checkpoint and distribute them more broadly, using things like behavioral observation and random-type activities.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked at TSA’s behavioral detection program and found it wanting. Why are you still an advocate for behavioral detection officers (BDOs)?

Because they work. The methods the GAO used were laughable. The GAO concluded that because terrorists passed through airports where there were BDOs, and the BDOs didn’t spot them, that means the program doesn’t work. That shows a complete lack of understanding of what BDOs do. The things that the BDOs are looking for are the signs of somebody who is doing something imminently. Someone who has a concoction of emotions that would indicate that there is a nefarious purpose, and they’re worried about getting caught. A lot of the guys that they mentioned were just traveling. When they’re just traveling, they’re not going to show the behaviors. It’s ludicrous to base the criticism, let alone publish a government report, with that as its basis. It may be the most successful program that the TSA operates. It’s just so funny because there are some who say that the TSA needs to be smarter and use intelligence and be risk-based. That is what the BDO program is. It does use intelligence. It is smarter. It does connect to other things. I guarantee it works.

Certain members of Congress wish to expand the Screening Partnership Program, where screeners are employed by private companies that operate according to TSA guidelines. Do you support this push?

If they changed the program to be meaningful, I would support it wholeheartedly. Right now, it is simply a job-contracting deal where you take, literally, what TSA officers do and hand the screening guidelines to a private employer and say, “Do this with people you hire, and here’s a profit margin.” They are not allowed to do a thing differently. They are not allowed to pay a penny less. But they are guaranteed a profit margin. So tell me what’s better about that other than it costs more money? It’s the worst of both worlds. The government should change the program and make it truly private sector. That’s the challenge.

(Click here to continue readingthis interview from our September 2012 issue)