The latest report about DHS red team personnel able to get prohibited items through screening checkpoints without being detected, an average of 95% of the time, is extraordinary. Even more extraordinary though is why the items were not being detected. According to the inspectors, the failures were “caused by human and technology-based failures,” John Roth, the inspector general at Homeland Security, said at a House hearing last month (Source:
Before we get to what’s wrong, let’s look at what’s right. Prior to 9/11 red team testing DID occur, but the results of the tests weren’t allowed to be used in fining the airlines for security shortcomings. There were certain testing protocols in place and if those protocols weren’t followed, then the test could not be used in civil penalties against the airlines (remember, they, or more accurately, their contractors did screening prior to 9/11).
Today however, the system is set up to be able to adjust to evolving security threats. The question is, will it?
Red team members are THE experts at aviation security. Remember Top Gun? They are the aggressor pilots – they are “call sign Viper,” (played by Tom Skerritt) the very best of the best. They know the weaknesses in the system and in the technology and how to exploit it. More good news? The good guys found these weaknesses, not the bad guys (yet).
The bad news is that the bad guys pay attention to reports like this. While they may not know how the red team got the items past the TSA personnel, what they just learned from this is that it’s possible to do it. In some of the most recent editions of al Qaeda’s online magazine, Inspire, they continue to talk about how to attack aviation.
More bad news? While you’re driving to work, making your money, spending your money, spending time with your family, enjoying weekend picnics and holidays, watching your reality TV, and generally living your life, the bad guys are out there trying to figure out new ways to exploit the weaknesses of the system. They remain fascinated with aviation and they never stop.
So now the question is, what’s next?
TSA has already ordered screeners to be re-trained, more random screenings at the checkpoints and more K-9 into the checkpoints, which, as anyone whose read my textbook or any of my previous blogs knows, I love dogs! You can’t try to befriend a dog, so you can try to make the him “miss” something. You can’t try to explain a liquid away with the dog – Fido either responds or doesn’t. And what I really love is that dogs add a huge random element – bad guys don’t want to see dogs and for good reason.
For the failures that are technological in nature, TSA needs to figure out what isn’t working and either the technology providers need to fix it, or TSA needs to implement operational fixes with their personnel to make up for the gap in technology. That’s part of a layered system – where one area is weak, other areas make up for it or cover the gap.
For the failures that are “human-based,” then it’s a matter of assessing where the failure took place and applying the proper antidote. Is is a training issue? Is it a performance issue? Is it a management issue? I know plenty of TSA personnel and many are good people trying to do a difficult job. I know some are very embarrassed by this and want to see the system fixed.
I don’t think that this is a systemic failure of the entire system and we need to start over from scratch. We did that already. But the gaps definitely must be identified and corrected. What I hope is that whatever TSA does moving forward, that we don’t go backward in the areas where we’ve made progress. I don’t want to see the risk-based approach go away and I also want to see transportation continue. The purpose of security is to get in the way and make it difficult as possible. We will never achieve 100% security. Just like anyone that really wants to break into your house will find a way, if someone really is committed to attacking aviation, they will eventually find a way. It’s about reasonable levels of deterrence while still allowing transportation, and to a certain extent, our way of life, to continue.
The mistake in aviation security is to believe that there is a “fix” that makes everything okay. Terrorism isn’t like a broken leg. You don’t put a cast on it and go on about your way. Terrorism is like the flu – it will always be with us and every year there’s a new strain of the virus. We must remain flexible, we must evolve with the new threats, while not forgetting that old threats can still kill us, we must use information like this to improve the system so we can continue to live our lives in relative peace and security.