You don’t remember Hawley? He was the head of the Transportation Security Administration way back in 2005. And now he’s talking. From the Wall Street Journal :
Airport security in America is broken. I should know. For 3½ years—from my confirmation in July 2005 to President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009—I served as the head of the Transportation Security Administration.
You know the TSA. We’re the ones who make you take off your shoes before padding through a metal detector in your socks (hopefully without holes in them). We’re the ones who make you throw out your water bottles. We’re the ones who end up on the evening news when someone’s grandma gets patted down or a child’s toy gets confiscated as a security risk. If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably hate us.
Or if you’re a child, or disabled or a parent. Or if you’re elderly or prefer not to have strangers’ fingers touching your breasts or your vagina. Or if you breath.
Hawley goes on to explain why, as pretty much everyone not receiving a government paycheck already knows, airport security is a game played for the benefit of grocery clerks and blue-shirts, with the very best of bureaucratic intentions, all at the expense of the flying public.
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, as I learned in my years at the helm, 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.
In 2012, Hawley offers insights. In 2012, of course, Hawley has no control over much of anything. Two questions emerge: Why is Hawley so much smarter now than he was from 2005 to 2009, when he was in charge of the TSA? Why did it take Hawley so long to grow a pair and show the guts to speak up?
Hawley goes on to explain how we arrived at such a sorry state of affairs, a crisis bred fear. Fear bred a knee-jerk demand for safety, but there was nothing in place to accomplish the security sought. So the government largely made it up, doing what seemed like a good idea at the moment. Today, we attribute the birth and growth of TSA screening methods to venal motives. According to Hawley, it was just plain, old stupidity. They had a problem and no real clue how to solve it. So they just made stuff up that seemed, to a bunch of people who had no real clue, like it ought to work.
The procedures then became part of the bureaucratic myth, the internal inertia that once done cannot be undone. It became what they do, and they did it, and we suffered for it.
Most fascinating is that the concern wasn’t to seek the input and methodology of security experts, but rather management consultants to speed up the lines. Rather than ask the question, why are we doing this, the primary focus was how can we make people hate us less.
The airport checkpoint as we know it today sprang into existence in spring 2002, over a month and a half at Baltimore/Washington International airport. New demands on the system after 9/11, like an exhaustive manual check of all carry-on bags, had left checkpoints overwhelmed by long lines and backlogs. A team of management consultants from Accenture delved into the minutiae of checkpoint activity at BWI: How long did it take to pass from one point to another? How did the behavior of travelers affect line speed? How were people interacting with the equipment?
After all, if they could move people quickly, the initial complaints about long lines and delays would make the larger issues disappear.
Clearly, things needed to change. By the time of my arrival, the agency was focused almost entirely on finding prohibited items. Constant positive reinforcement on finding items like lighters had turned our checkpoint operations into an Easter-egg hunt. When we ran a test, putting dummy bomb components near lighters in bags at checkpoints, officers caught the lighters, not the bomb parts.
I wanted to reduce the amount of time that officers spent searching for low-risk objects, but politics intervened at every turn. Lighters were untouchable, having been banned by an act of Congress. And despite the radically reduced risk that knives and box cutters presented in the post-9/11 world, allowing them back on board was considered too emotionally charged for the American public.
Missing from Hawley’s epiphany is that he was made the head of the TSA, a position where he could have come forward to announce to the world, as he does here, that we’ve created a system that serves little purpose while simultaneously making the lives of millions miserable. He whines about the bureaucracy, the politics, the hard work of being a TSA screener, but he does it now, three years after he’s left office.
Airport security has to change. The relationship between the public and the TSA has become too poisonous to be sustained. And the way that we use TSA officers—as little more than human versions of our scanners—is a tremendous waste of well-trained, engaged brains that could be evaluating risk rather than looking for violations of the Standard Operating Procedure.
So Hawley concedes that he presided over a bureaucracy that institutionalized failure at the expense of Americans, yet never uttered a negative word. Of course, in 2012, he’s got plenty to say. It’s just that he’s got neither power nor authority to do a damn thing.
For those of you who were subjected to the humiliation, degradation, and perhaps even prosecution for not showing the TSA the respect and admiration the blue-shirts demanded, no doubt you feel vindicated by Hawley’s revelations. And you can feel that way until your sentence is completed or the psychological trauma subsides. Meet Kip Hawley, another American hero who comes clean just a bit too late.
H/T Amy Alkon, The Advice Goddess