Formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks to better secure the nation’s airports, the Transportation Security Administration has come to symbolize the nation’s constant struggle to balance privacy rights with security.
Whether it’s through the deployment of body imaging devices or "enhanced" pat-down procedures, the agency has suffered a huge blow to its image in the eyes of many Americans. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that travelers actually embraced having tighter airport security measures.
So, where did the agency go wrong and what can they do to get the flying American public back on their side? In a new book entitled, "Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security," former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley and non-fiction author Nathan Means address this issue head-on and discuss what the much maligned agency can do to get back on the right track.
"I think they need to get back on the same page with the public and that’s an actual security thing," said Hawley, who served as head of agency from 2005 to early 2009. "This divide has gotten so deep that the public is not listening to anything the TSA is saying and that does not improve security, in fact, it hurts it."
One of Hawley’s primary recommendations is for the TSA to "immediately" scale back the prohibited items list so that screeners are actually focused on stopping terror threats and not on a scavenger hunt for things such as Swiss Army knives and tools. While these items could hurt a person, Hawley said that they’re not really a threat to bring a plane down anymore.
"Change the rules! It’s literally as simple as that," Hawley explained. "You take the prohibited items list, you get out your red pen and you just go through the list and take out everything but bombs, guns and toxins. It takes a real risk management approach because when I did that at TSA – the couple of times I did it – we had to get an act of Congress to change the prohibited items list and we heard about blood running in the aisles when we tried to put scissors back on."
Hawley is also a big proponent of doing away with enhanced pat-downs, calling it an "unnecessary" practice that should be stopped.
"I can understand it as a short-term emergency measure, but it has been in place for a year-and-a-half or more and there are other ways to get the same security value and I think the agency needs to step up and do that," he said. "It goes along with changing the prohibited items list and other things that would start to get the public’s attention and that says, 'ok, the TSA is coming halfway here.'"
Though he would make some big changes, there are some steps that the agency has taken since Hawley was at the helm that he approves of, such as behavioral screening. Despite criticisms of the program by lawmakers, Hawley said that it actually is effective and that while terrorists have been trained to mask specific suspicious behavior indicators, they cannot consciously control them. Hawley is also in favor of body scanners and believes that the built-in privacy protections the agency has for them are "excellent and sincere."
Another source of consternation for passengers, the removal of shoes at airport security lines, is still a necessity for the time being, according to Hawley.
"I can’t speak to what the current intel is, but I know that anybody at TSA who could possibly justify a security measure that didn’t involve taking shoes off would do it in a heartbeat," he said. "But it is a problem because it’s a clever way to conceal explosives and they just need a way to deal with it because it was, at least in 2009, a legitimate threat."
Essentially, Hawley said he thinks the main takeaway from the book is that the public needs to be involved in the risk management discussion regarding airport security and also take a more active role in implementing the security measure that come out of that.