Earlier this week, Kip Hawley, the former head of the Transportation Security Administration, proclaimed that "airport security in America is broken" in an editorial in The Wall Street Journal.
His commentary made a splash, as it should when any former official, whether public or private, criticizes the organization they once led. In it, he argued that the TSA needs to realize its job is "to manage risk, not to enforce regulations," and laid out the steps he believes would allow the TSA to be more effective at securing airports, while also re-winning the hearts and minds of the flying public.
However, the fact he's only speaking out about the TSA and its shortfalls now smacks of self-promotion. Evidenced by the fact that—surprise, surprise—it coincides with the publishing date (April 24) of his new book, Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security. As others have pointed out, Hawley is now espousing what TSA's detractors were saying during Hawley's tenure at the agency. Have the years of retrospection really given him a change of heart, or is it just easier to tell the truth when you're a free agent looking for consultant gigs rather than make the hard leadership decisions in the face of government bureaucracy?
I don't mean to be harsh on Hawley, but many of the changes he says are needed—more randomized security, no rigid lists of banned items, allow all liquids—are not new ideas. They're just ideas that have been hard to implement without proper leadership. To be fair, Hawley in his editorial acknowledges the mistake he made while at the agency's helm was being "naïve" about the TSA's "bureaucratic momentum and political pressures."
But while Hawley argues in his WSJ editorial that airport security is "broken," that doesn't mean he's admitting he made any mistakes during his tenure or that the TSA has failed its mission. On the contrary, in a virtual debate at The Economist's website last month Hawley argued the opposite, that the TSA's methods have worked. "Whatever perceived buffoonery takes place at checkpoints does not mitigate the cold reality that there are real attack plots and that TSA people all over the world, in concert with partners in industry and other government agencies, take action to prevent them," Hawley writes in his opening remarks in the debate. "Sometimes these actions are undecipherable and awkward, but they have worked."
So TSA's airport security measures "have worked," but now are "broken." At first glance, the ideas seem incongruous, but look closer and it's clear Hawley is talking about the stalled evolution of airport security strategies and risk management, which again is a result of government bureaucracy and the reality of politics. "The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk," he writes in the WSJ. "In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple."
From The Economist: "A better risk model against al-Qaeda-like attackers is to employ many changeable, flexible layers and make it simple for the defense to change measures while inflicting a dangerously high cost on would-be attackers who could never be sure what defense they were going to face on the day of their planned attack."
In his WSJ editorial, Hawley goes on to list several changes that the TSA—"if politicians gave the TSA some political cover"—could implement to make air travel safer and less burdensome for travelers.
Aside from obvious violent weapons, "no more banned items." "The list of banned items has created 'an Easter-egg hunt' mentality at the TSA," he writes. "Worse, banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack."
"Allow all liquids." Hawley claims the liquid ban was at first necessary to counter a known threat (al Qaeda's hydrogen-peroxide-based bombs), but that today "simple checkpoint signage, a small software update and some traffic management are all that stand between you and bringing all your liquids on every U.S. flight."
"Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable." Hawley argues that the current system is too rigid and TSA supervisors should support personal initiative on the part of front-line TSA officers.
"Eliminate baggage fees." Hawley makes a good point that airlines instituting baggage fees have led passengers to stuff their carry-on items, which slows down checkpoints. But, as Scheier points out, that doesn't seem a viable option without Congress passing a law to that effect.
"Randomize security." "Predictability is deadly," Hawley writes. A painfully obvious point, but one Hawley felt compelled to press home given the TSA's reliance on such non-predictable things like banned-item lists and "rigid protocols." Of course, the TSA does introduce some randomness to airport security, such as behavior detection officers, air marshals and bomb-sniffing dogs, but Hawley doesn't believe they're enough.
To sum up his argument, Hawley writes: "Embracing a bit of risk could reduce the hassle of today's airport experience while making us safer at the same time."
While the ideas Hawley espouses in his editorial are all good ones, the harsh reality is that "embracing a bit of risk" is likely impossible when politicians are involved. Here's Bruce Schneier, one of the TSA's most outspoken critics, on the political dilemma: "It's in nobody's self-interest to take a stand for what might appear to be reduced security. Imagine that the TSA management announces a new rule that box cutters are now okay, and that they respond to critics by explaining that the current risks to airplanes don't warrant prohibiting them. Even if they're right, they're open to attacks from political opponents that they're not taking terrorism seriously enough. And if they're wrong, their careers are over.
"It's even worse when it's elected officials who have to make the decision. Which congressman is going to jeopardize his political career by standing up and saying that the cigarette lighter ban is stupid and should be repealed? It's all political risk, and no political gain."
So, airport security is "broken," travelers are fed up with the TSA, and no one has the political will or leadership to fix the problem. That's not a great diagnosis. It's clear the reforms have to be embraced by the citizens before the politicians and bureaucrats feel safe enough to touch them. Whether Hawley's public manifesto will fan the flames of anti-status quo sentiment enough to make a difference remains to be seen.