Skip to main content

TSA, change the airport security mindset

By Kip Hawley, Special to CNN
updated 10:00 AM EDT, Tue August 6, 2013
Transportation Security Administration officers work at the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., on March 4.
Transportation Security Administration officers work at the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., on March 4.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kip Hawley: Airport transportation security officers are misunderstood
  • He says infractions are related to being unmotivated and enforcing senseless rules
  • Hawley: Officers need to be trained, empowered and allowed to think for themselves
  • He says allow banned items, except obvious ones; stop shoe inspections, intrusive pat-downs

Editor's note: Kip Hawley was head of the Transportation Security Administration from 2005 through 2009. He is the co-author of "Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security."

(CNN) -- Airport transportation security officers are probably the least understood and most maligned of federal employees. Travelers hate them for taking away water bottles and making them take off their shoes. If a story is reported about them, it's along the lines of a little old lady getting groped. They are the victims of unflattering stereotypes that make easy targets for cheap laughs.

Even President Barack Obama made a joke about pat-downs in a 2011 State of the Union address.

And when the Government Accountability Office found increased Transportation Security Administration officer misconduct, it just ratcheted up their unpopularity. The report was jarring and disturbing -- rising numbers of absenteeism, theft and intentional security lapses. Obviously, these are red flags that can't be ignored.

Report: TSA employee misconduct up 26% in 3 years

Kip Hawley
Kip Hawley

Unfortunately, instead of taking on the issue of stopping the misconduct, GAO's focus was on how TSA "could strengthen oversight of allegations of employee misconduct," the safe issues of process oversight, management of the accusations and data gathering versus digging into the controversial root causes of the actual misconduct.

TSA's response was to assure us it fires those proven to have violated the public trust. In fact, it does. It will be tempting for TSA leaders to rally around solutions involving tougher discipline, deeper investigations and more thorough documentation.

That would be exactly the wrong way to fix the real problem.

In today's TSA, too many officers switch off their minds in favor of just finishing out the shift without rocking the boat. This may be the root cause of the GAO-identified misdeeds. TSA needs to have its officers switched-on and motivated.

The security workforce comprises many who stepped up after 9/11 to stop terror attacks. My experience with transportation security officers is that they are overwhelmingly dedicated, sharp, willing and empathetic to passengers and their problems.

TSA investigation
TSA under fire for misconduct

As The New York Times correctly pointed out in an editorial: "T.S.A. asks its officers to enforce rules of questionable utility while giving them remarkably little discretion. ... That is a huge waste of human talent."

Inside look at TSA bomb training

Considering that the human brain is the most sophisticated technology on the planet and that the officers have experience with hundreds of thousands of passengers, the question would seem to be: "How do we get the most from this resource that we already pay and have on duty at checkpoints?" It is not through additional rules and a more robust disciplinary process.

Security officers are in the best position to use their experience and training and detect a threat not covered in the Standard Operating Procedure. Al Qaeda knows the rules and designs its attacks to comply with it. To stop attacks, officers thinking on their own needs to be encouraged, not disciplined.

Once officers are allowed to think for themselves, it opens the door for mistakes and criticism. But people can be taught the fundamentals of risk management, which provides a framework for making informed judgments. The risk strategy must be carefully thought out -- complexity theory, with its network orientation, is the best way to think about transportation security risk -- and risk management tools understood and applied.

A nation with no airline security

Armed with substantial intelligence resources, TSA's air marshals, inspectors and security officers need to be nimble in thinking about and applying the principles of risk management. But they also must be empowered to act.

TSA needs to make these changes right now to take on the root causes of its public and security issues. It needs to clean up the mind numbing, overly complicated checkpoint "standard operating procedure," which no longer matches our security needs and allow officers to act. What needs to be changed:

• The intrusive pat-down needs to be discontinued in favor of a lighter technique supplemented with available technologies.

• The "prohibited items" list needs to be radically reduced to ban only real security threats such as explosives and toxins. As far as carrying knives, the FAA should make it a serious federal offense to intimidate a member of the flight crew or another passenger with a blade -- and then TSA can remove blades from the prohibited list. Blades represent virtually no threat to the aircraft at this point. And the baggie rule should be dropped. Current technology allows threat liquids to be detected when they are taken out of the carry-on and scanned in a bin.

• Passengers should be chosen randomly for shoes and coat inspections. Precheck programs for frequent fliers that expedite security screening should be applied to all travelers.

• Workers need to be retrained in risk management and encouraged to use their own judgment and experience, consulting with team members, to make prudent discretionary security calls.

• The pay-for-performance system for transportation security officers needs to be reinstated. When transportation security officers unionized, merit pay was replaced by the seniority system -- essentially, if officers follow the standard operating procedure, they get regular pay raises up till retirement regardless of how well they perform.

• We need to allow real private-sector innovation to compete and play a more meaningful role in security. Today, a fig leaf system is in place that calls itself "private sector" but is in reality just personnel outsourcing. These outsourced employees have to follow the TSA process exactly -- the only difference is that they get to charge an 8% markup on all their expenses. We need to get new ideas from outside the TSA that can be tested at our checkpoints.

A clear risk management strategy along with these changes, taken together, would energize checkpoint activity, bring the public more on board, drive out the few bad apples, and improve security.

See also: How much do we really hate the TSA?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kip Hawley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT