Are We Safer: Part 5 – TSA

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 9.06.29 PMOn the anniversary of 9/11 I guess it is only fitting to assess the largest change in aviation security to come out of that tragedy, the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. Since its creation in November 2001 this much-maligned agency has been at the center of the aviation security debate for the last decade, not to mention providing comedians and late-night talk show hosts a mountain of never-ending material.

I have many friends who either work for or used to work for TSA. I’ve engaged well over 600 Transportation Security Inspectors and Assistant Federal Security Directors and in my training classes and have friends that are FSDs and others who have served at high levels with TSA. I’ve also met more than my share of screeners (Transportation Security Officers) and have the frequent flyer miles to prove it. What I’ve found is that the vast majority of people that work for TSA are good, smart people, who know they have an important mission and try their best to contribute to aviation security, not impede it.

Of course, TSA has had more than its share of problems. Even today, there was a TSA screener who was recently let go in Los Angeles, arrested for making threats against the airport. The recent Government Accountability Office report showing that some screeners were stealing from passengers, while others were allowing friends and relatives to bypass the screening checkpoint is yet another unfortunate panel in the fabric of TSA’s makeup. But when you have an organization of over 80,000 people you’re going to have some problems.

There are also numerous complaints from industry that TSA is too big, that is it is engaging in mission creep and getting into areas that does not need to be involved in (like screening at sporting events and concerts). That the managers at the top don’t stay in place and that many inspectors and FSD’s don’t understand the industry like they should.

Looking at this from a pre-9/11 versus post-9/11 perspective, consider that pre-9/11 we did not have an agency of the US government that was dedicated to the internal security of our country, much less on aviation security. Aviation security was handled by the Federal Aviation Administration, through their Civil Aviation Security Field Offices (CASFO) and related inspector workforce, and for the large air carrier airports the Federal Security Manager. These offices were staffed with a small number of inspectors who oversaw airport and air carrier security programs. Many of them transferred over with the creation of TSA, thereby bringing a lot of institutional knowledge to an agency that knew very little about aviation when it started.

That was it. The security of the airport and air carriers was handled largely by airport security personnel and air carrier security personnel with very little government intervention. Screening was handled by aircraft operator contractors and was overseen largely by airline ground security coordinators (gate agents).

Prior to 9/11 there were also many accusations that the FAA was too closely related to the airline industry and that often those relationships damaged aviation security. It was not unusual to see someone retire from the FAA and begin working for an airline or airline lobbying group. It was also not uncommon to see an airline manager quit and go to work for the FAA. After TSA was created it to reported to the Department of Transportation just like the FAA but this would not last long.

Soon after TSA stood up, the controversy over TSA’s relationship with the Department of Transportation was one of the impetus to create the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is loosely designed on the United Kingdom’s MI-5 internal security service. Just by having TSA report to Homeland Security changes the focus from transportation to security.

We have already discussed the takeover of the screening workforce so I will not address that here. What I will focus on is the organization itself and whether it’s creation has made us safer than before 9/11. I am sometimes accused of playing a little too much defense so I will make this statement clearly:

I believe that the creation of TSA has made us safer.

With all of their warts and all of their faults this Frankenstein organization that was pieced together in just over 60 days after the terrorist attacks, going from 5 employees in November 2001 to over 50,000 just to year later, and still being the youngest government organization now entering its teenage years, TSA has still made aviation security better than it was before. This is also not to say that it doesn’t have tremendous room for improvement, but  what government organization doesn’t have that?

Post-9/11 we have a government organization that is focused on transportation security, and a parent organization that is focused on the internal security of our nation. The Department of Defense has well-established the external security of our nation to the point where we are rarely challenged on a conventional field of battle. Every country in the world knows that would be losing proposition. Admit it, we are damn good at war. But now the attack has moved internally. Previously, there were very clear lines on the maps that separated the good guys from the bad guys. Those lines are either blurry or have completely vanished and it is sometimes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad – we needed to improvise, overcome and adapt.

DHS, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation have in the last 12 years stepped up significantly to protect our nation. If nothing else, the creation of TSA has turned the nation’s focus and the focus of numerous government organizations on aviation and transportation security, whereas prior to 9/11, very few people were even looking.

The creation of TSA also helped build relationships with the intelligence agencies; so unlike prior to 9/11 when the FAA was treated like a mushroom agency, kept in the intelligence dark and fed a lot of s$!t, TSA now has Field Intelligence Officers, programs like the Terrorism Liaison Officer (TLO), the Transportation Security Operations Center (TSOC) which coordinates transportation security on a daily basis, and much better access to threat information than the FAA ever had.

Moving forward, I think to improve TSA and make it more of an industry partner that it claims to be, it needs to evaluate some of its missions. A serious look needs to be taken at the private screening program as this is an international model and when properly handled can be just as effective and possibly even more cost-effective than the existing models. I think TSA needs to strongly assess its mission creep into other areas of airport and airline security, and definitely into the areas that are not transportation related, such as concerts and sporting events. Programs like the behavior detection officer need to be revisited. The behavior detection model works when all the airport and airline employees are trained in detecting deception, not a small team of folks wandering around the airport looking for suspicious people.

On the inspector side, TSA needs to get a better handle on standardizing the guidance and training of the inspector workforce. I have conducted surveys and interviews at dozens of airports and seen numerous interpretations of the same regulation. Some of this is natural because of the characteristics of the airport, but this is an area where the inspectors need better guidance on what security processes are acceptable and meet the regulatory standard and what does not. There are too many airport security coordinators and aircraft operator security coordinators jumping through unnecessary hoops – its costing money and taking the focus off the overall security issues of the day.

TSA also needs to be more open and collaborative with their industry relationships. It’s one thing to say it, its another to show it. The recent amendment to turn the exit lane staffing over to airports is a good example of TSA hearing but not listening to what industry says.

Hopefully, TSA can start putting people into leadership positions in DC and the federal security director levels that have more industry background and an understanding of how aviation and the transportation industries work. After 9/11 the FSD ranks were quickly filled with a “boys club,” of former military flag officers and retired federal law enforcement agents. Part of that is by design as the senior executive service hiring process doesn’t focus on industry expertise, but on the ability to be a good corporate manager. But over the past decade they have recruited some FSDs from outside of the military and law-enforcement ranks and started to bring in some people with airport and airline industry backgrounds, which has helped the organization gain some perspective. I don’t know how you can manage something when you don’t know anything about the product or service.

I think TSA is on the right track with its risk-based security programs such as PreCheck and Known Crew member. These are innovative programs that recognize the vast majority of the travelers are not a risk to aviation. They still need to continue to clean house internally, getting rid of the thieves and slackers, but I imagine this will be a never-ending mission. So overall, I think we are safer as a result of TSAs creation, because if nothing else we have more people looking at the issue and focusing on threats to aviation than we did prior to 9/11.

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