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Transportation Security Perspective: Interview with former TSA administrator Kip Hawley

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.The story you tell about the TSA is the birth of an organization not only trying to become a risk-based agency but an intelligence-driven one as well. Do you consider TSA intel-driven and integrated into the U.S. intelligence community?

Yes. I think that’s the best thing the agency does. I think TSA Administrator John Pistole puts a tremendous amount of his personal time into ensuring that intelligence is integrated into the operations that TSA carries out. That is something the agency gets very little credit for doing. They will get intelligence from any of the agencies from the U.S. government and be able to convert it into Federal Air Marshal missions within an hour. If they’re concerned about something—like that next-generation underwear bomb that came up in May—TSA can put air marshals on flights coming to and from a particular area. They can do that on a dime, anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the public only sees TSA taking away scissors and doing pat downs.

The TSA has begun to gradually expand its voluntary known-traveler program, called PreCheck. Do you think this program is enough to keep the lines moving and avoid bottlenecks as more and more people fly?

I think they should do PreCheck for everybody. TSA gets the basic information on everybody. There’s nothing about a frequent flier that makes them more or less likely to be a terrorist. There are plenty of al Qaeda people who are frequent fliers. I think it’s a great start, and you have to start somewhere, but the goal ought to be to say this is our system; we’re going to allow anyone to enroll.

In your opinion, was the integration of full-body scanners into the checkpoint as the primary screening technology necessary, especially when the GAO and researchers have called into question their effectiveness at detecting nonmetallic threats?

Full-body scanners are useless as secondary screening. If you’re not going to use them for primary screening, you shouldn’t buy them. Everyone in al Qaeda knows how to avoid getting sent to secondary. But I think the scanner is great. And for people with artificial hips and the like, it’s a lifesaver. You never have to stop for a pat down.

What made full-body scanners more controversial was the pat down that went with them. The sense that if you didn’t go through the scanner, we were going to give you a very thorough pat down. I think the pat down has been the tipping point that turned the public against the TSA.

What is Project Newton?

That’s a hundred-dollar question. After the 2006 liquid bomb plot, we had an immediate national need to figure out what was going on with these explosives. We reached out to the national laboratories—Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos—and asked for their help. In that process, we discovered that they had incredible modeling capabilities. With the participation of Boeing and Airbus, we could completely model what explosive would do what damage in what position in what specific airplane.

We also discovered that the certification standards that drove us to buy all those expensive explosives detection system machines were based on an old model Boeing 737. The planes in use today are much sounder structurally. Therefore, the bomb detection equipment was set to detect amounts of explosives that could not blow up an airplane. Project Newton was about determining whether we should change our certification standards so that TSA was buying machines that cost $200,000 instead of a million.

The whole program was a classified, compartmented program. It got into all the details about which bomb could do what. It would tell you precisely what you needed to protect against. It allowed us to say we know a liquid hydrogen peroxide bomb is their best bomb, and it will work, and they know how to make it, so we have to take that off the table. We also know that certain other bombs do not work. And so Project Newton was the most important technology program at TSA.

You’re talking in the past tense. What happened to Project Newton?

I don’t know exactly. I do know that it’s dead. It died a quiet death around mid-to-late 2011 in a budget cut, according to a former colleague of mine at TSA. The problem is no one wants to go on the record and explain exactly what happened and say something that could essentially make them unemployable.