Airport Security: Everything You Know Is Wrong

In a new book, former TSA head Kip Hawley says we’re spending our money on all the wrong things

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

There’s no shortage of critics of our current ways of securing air travel. Here’s a typical critique, culled from a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal:

More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.

The crux of the problem…is our wrongheaded approach to risk. 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.

I called that a typical critique, but in one respect it isn’t. Those are the words of the former head of the Transportation Security Administration. From 2005 to 2009, Kip Hawley led TSA as it instituted or modified many of the features of airport security we’ve come to know—about liquids, gels, and aerosols; mandatory shoe removal; and those giant full-body scanners.

These days, he’s a private security consultant, and he’s also the author of a new book, Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security, published by Macmillan, in which he now criticizes many of the same rules and procedures he oversaw.

Kip, welcome to the podcast.

Kip Hawley: It’s great to be with you.

Steven Cherry: In an article in The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about his mother-in-law, who’s 79 years old and triggered an alarm going through the scanner at Washington’s Reagan airport. He writes: “She was asked by a TSA agent, in a voice loud enough for several people to hear, ‘Are you wearing a sanitary napkin?’ My mother-in-law answered, ‘No. Why do you ask?’ The TSA agent responded: ‘Well, are you wearing anything else down there?’ She said no, at which point, the friend with whom she was traveling…came over and asked if there was a problem. The TSA agent said, again, in full voice, ‘There's an anomaly in the crotch area.’” Kip, I take it you’re ready for your former staff to stop looking into anomalies in the crotch area of 79-year-old grandmothers and maybe even the rest of us as well.

Kip Hawley: Well, the obvious piece there is, what in the heck were they doing having that kind of a conversation in public? It usually is on the radio, from the person who has a view of the image, to say, “Please rescan the individual,” and that’s—all they say is, “Ma’am, would you mind going through again?” And they’re done. And obviously that was completely insensitive, and I can’t explain how that would have happened. Certainly it should not have.

Steven Cherry: Certainly—anomalies occur everywhere. But more generally, let’s turn to some of the things you talk about in your book. You would eliminate the bans on liquids, on sharp objects, on tools, on cigarette lighters—all of those little things that are turned away right now.

Kip Hawley: Well, there are two different major points. One is that for the sharp objects, they are no longer a threat to take down an airplane. And the question is, do we need to do all of that stuff with the checkpoint to make sure somebody doesn’t stab the person sitting next to them? It’s that it could happen—but it’s not going to happen—that there’d be a plane taken over any more. So my argument is that if you’re going to talk about risk management, we should say that we’re willing to accept the risk that there could be violence on a plane because you can kill somebody with your hands, basically. And so I view that banning baseball bats and knives is a waste of time at this point. Liquids is very different. Liquids still represent a major explosive threat, but what I’m saying is that we have the technology to detect the threat. It’s just that the technology spits out too many false positives, so that it could slow down the line. And my argument is, rather than wait another x number of years to get the machine that allows you to keep everything in the bag, let’s give the choice to the public now that if they want to bring in liquids, they can go to what would be known as a liquid lane, and you go through there, and it might take a little bit longer. And if you don’t want to wait, you just use the baggie and keep going. So what I’m saying is, the sharp object is not a threat; the liquids could be a threat, but we have the technology to discover them.

Steven Cherry: I’m curious: To stay with the sharp objects for just a second, you say it’s not a threat any more. But didn’t we learn that at 9/11, with United Air’s Flight 93, the plane that went down in Pennsylvania?

Kip Hawley: Yes, we absolutely did. And one of the things that I called for within a couple months of taking over was a review of the prohibited items. And I started with scissors and small tools, and I had a fight to the last with Congress, who introduced legislation to prevent these changes. There was talk of blood running in the aisles, and when I came back a year later to try to take lighters off the prohibited items list, since Al Qaeda was using electronic detonators, it took literally an act of Congress to get that changed. So I kind of infer in your questioning, if you’re here in 2010 saying blades should be allowed, where were you when you were in office? The answer is exactly the same place, only I can say it now, and I guess the Congress could act or doesn’t have to act. But these are not new ideas. I think it’s something many of the security people have felt, that the threat has changed, our vulnerabilities have changed, and we need to unplug some of the old security items that are now just wasting time.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I want to turn to those in a minute. I’m just curious about one point about the liquids, which you note is a different matter than the sharp objects. You had a wonderful point-counterpoint debate in the pages of The Economist back in March with security expert Bruce Schneier, and he argued that the bans have never made any sense because of the way that they’re administered. He said, “If you’re caught with a knife or a large bottle of liquid, the TSA agent will simply take it and let you through. This means that anything less than 100% detection rate is ineffective, because a terrorist can repeatedly try until he succeeds.”

Kip Hawley: Well, I disagree with that. And I think that there are aspects—I certainly respect Bruce Schneier, and he makes a lot of good, logical points, but he’s missing some of the practical application of it: that the bottle scanners we have at airports are effective at threat detection, and the baggie was designed partially to trap the vapors from hydrogen peroxide bombs that you’d be able to detect from outside as well, not to mention if you opened the baggie. And that whole thing about multiple—bringing in, you know, 10 people each, with a little—with their three ounces each [and they] could combine it, is something that is mathematically possible in the studio but operationally not feasible. So that’s an example of risk management.

Steven Cherry: I’ll just raise one other point that he brings up, and then we can move on to some other things. U.S. taxpayers spend, I don’t know, upwards of $10 billion on airport security, but according to the Government Accountability Office in a 2010 report by the National Academies of Science, the “TSA doesn’t routinely consider the costs and benefits when acquiring new technologies.” Is that true?

Kip Hawley: No. I think that you can calculate those things on a wide variety of ways, and the numbers are so big it is very easy to distort the numbers. Because if you say that the cost is a catastrophic loss of an aircraft , you could value that at anything from the loss of life of three or four hundred people to the complete closure of the aviation system in the United States. And after 9/11, I think we were all aware that there were massive indirect effects as well as direct effects, and when you’re talking in the billions and trillions of dollars, that then trying to do math cutting it down to the fine points of whether this scanner is worth is versus this scanner when there’s a margin of error on detectability of, say, 20 percent. You’ve got this 20 percent factor fluctuating on the detectability side, and then you have how big the impact is fluctuating on the other side. Those numbers are, frankly, useless in operationally deploying them. So they certainly are a major consideration any time technology is bought, but I think a lot of these agencies prefer to have a beautiful paper trail for things that cannot be reduced to fine numbers.

Steven Cherry: So it sounds like you’re saying that it’s basically true that those analyses aren’t done, but there’s a reason for it, and the reason is that it’s pretty much impossible to calculate the benefits and the risks.

Kip Hawley: No, the work is done, it’s just not done the way they are defining it. So they come in and say, “Here’s our definition of a risk analysis and a cost trade-off and you’re not doing it this way.” Well, that’s true, but we’re doing it a different way and one that is actually practical. I’ll give you one example: There were proposals to put in five-, six-hundred-thousand-dollar scanners at checkpoints to allow people to keep laptops and bags. And at 400 airports, you figure out the math of how much that would have cost. And TSA said to the bag manufacturers, “If you make bags with a flap that can show the laptop uncluttered, you’ll be able to keep it in the bag.” And that cost the government exactly zero and sped up the lines and is as good as redeploying a whole new set of technology. So there’s a case where the cost-benefit was just enormously one sided, and obviously there wasn’t a GAO report on that, but it was common sense that it was a pretty big savings.

Steven Cherry: Fair enough. Let’s turn to some of the positive steps you would take. You would rely more on intelligence and screening, and you want to give TSA personnel—you recommend TSA personnel have much more flexibility. Tell us what you have in mind.

Kip Hawley: Well, most people do not understand, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book was to put in what was previously classified as the “intelligence backdrop” to these security measures. And that is already very much at the forefront of TSA’s work. And today, TSA is one of the top users of operationalizing intelligence, and they can do it on a virtually real-time basis. So when people say they should concentrate less on opening up bags and more on intelligence, that’s a good statement, except that the government’s been doing that for a considerable number of years and is one of the—I think is the best part of TSA. So they do a good job of that, but what they don’t do a good job of is unplugging the older methods that are still hanging around. So what I’d say for the officers is that if they weren’t being told to do the pat-down that they’re being told or to fish around for Swiss Army knives, that they would be better able to use their training and intelligence and therefore be more effective security officers.

Steven Cherry: If our intelligence capabilities are so sharp—and have been—why were there so many problems for years with the no-fly list?

Kip Hawley: Well, there weren’t actually, and you’re going to say, “What, is this guy crazy?” But the issue is that the airlines had responsibility for matching the lists. So we sent to the airlines the watch lists; the airlines, knowing it was going to be taken over by the government, spent zero money in upgrading their systems, and they used really bad matching systems. So suppose if somebody’s name on the watch list was Abraham Abraham Abraham, some airlines might go through the difficulty of sorting out, using birth date or something else, which of the people with Abraham in the name is the real one on the watch list. Other airlines might say anybody with the name Abraham anywhere in the name is a potential match, and then they flag them, and they come to the desk of the airlines, and the airline says no. And all of those false positives think they are on the watch list, and they never ever were. Teddy Kennedy, never. I mean it was a complete public affairs nightmare for TSA, and I bet that you haven’t heard a squawk since about a year ago when the system went in-house at TSA, and they have very sophisticated matching.

Steven Cherry: They say that the devil is in the details, and you have a very interesting point in your book to make about luggage fees. Tell us how that works.

Kip Hawley: Yes. Well, after the liquids plot in 2006, when TSA originally banned liquids everybody checked their bags, and that made the baggage system groan under the weight. And then six weeks after we put the ban in, we changed it to allow you to bring whatever kind of liquid you wanted; it just had to be in a small bottle. And still that meant that there were fewer suitcases, but some of the airlines instituted fees. And what that did was tip the balance way back the other way, so that now everybody carried on virtually everything, and that has an effect of slowing down the checkpoint, cluttering up the bags, and making the security job more difficult. So what I call for in that proposal is that it is worth a lot of money to TSA not to have people disincented to check bags, so I’m proposing that the TSA essentially trade off other fees they get from the airlines in exchange for the airlines’ not charging the passengers extra for baggage. And then the effect of that would be to very much lighten the load of what goes through checkpoints and again, same thing as I said before about prohibited items, [with] a cleaner bag, where you’re only looking for the really harmful things, you can do a much better security job. So it’s really a security enhancement that looks like a consumer protection thing, which is nice if it does that too, but it really changed the security dynamic when all of those bags started coming through the checkpoints.

Steven Cherry: If you don’t mind a further suggestion, I’ve thought for a while that the system is completely backwards, that the airlines should be charging for the carry-on baggage because, first of all, that’s the scarce resource that everybody wants, and second, precisely because it creates this additional expense in time if not money for everybody going through security. So I would charge just for what they’re not charging and not charge for the charged thing.

Kip Hawley: Yeah. Well, that logic sounds good; the marketing’s probably difficult, but the logic sounds good. For my point, I think you’d save so much money at the checkpoint by having a lot fewer people and checkpoints open, that truly it’s worth the money to TSA to make it worthwhile for the airlines to stop that.

Steven Cherry: You said before that Congress was one of the biggest problems in creating more rational rules. Do you think that problem can be solved?

Kip Hawley: Yes, if the American public comes together on security. And I think that’s what the real danger is, and you read my quote at the beginning about the significant chasm that’s developed between public and TSA. And congressmen fly every week, and they’re very close in touch with kind of the temperature of the American public on security. And right now the public is angry, and the Congress is by and large angry, and so that means there is always something going on on the Hill, whether there’s a hearing or a legislative proposal or an amendment that would direct TSA to do this, that, or the other thing, and that’s just—you can’t operate a security agency like that. And so my hope is that when the American public starts to feel they understand and support what TSA is doing, that gets picked up on by the Congress, and the Congress eases off a little bit, and we have better, more flexible security that is supported by the public.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, Kip, I think we all have the same goals: making air travel safe and convenient. So good luck with your work, and good luck with the book.

Kip Hawley: Thank you very much.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Kip Hawley, former head of the Transportation Security Administration and author of a new book, Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 2 May 2012.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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