Kip Hawley Comes Clean

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

19 comments on “Kip Hawley Comes Clean

  1. John Beaty

    H and Bruce Schneier (a British security expert) had a “discussion” over at the Economist last month, where Hawley took the exact opposite of everything he espouses in the WSJ. The man lies out of both sides of his mouth.

  2. SHG

    Is it really possible to lie out of both sides of one’s mouth?  And wouldn’t you like to have Schneier standing next to you as you pass through security?

  3. Frank

    Kip Hawley Is (Still) An Idiot.

    There is a reason why that quart ziplock containing your 100ml or less toiletry bottles is called a “kippie bag”. He is a good part of the reason why TSA is the most hated government agency in the USA, supplanting the IRS.

    The only epiphany Kippie had is the realization that he might end up being referred to in criminal court documents as “defendant.”

  4. SHG

    Oh, Frank. You are being very cruel to Hawley. He really wanted to make it better. He really, really did. But that mean old bureaucracy just made it so terribly hard, and it tool him all these years to find the right words to express his remorse.  Be gentle with Kip. He’s very sad about how it’s all worked out.

  5. Dante

    Just like the War on Drugs – our “leaders” only condemn it once they leave office and are no longer collecting a fat paycheck. Because if they said anything while actually in position to change it, they would lose that office (and the fat check that comes with it). Seems to me they speak up after leaving their jobs in an attempt to regain their jobs.

  6. Onlooker

    What a tool that guy is. Thanks for nothing. This is what happens when our politicians appoint bureaucratic crony yes men instead of leaders.

    Who could have known the TSA would end up this way? Oh, yeah, a whole bunch of people who know that any large bureaucracy given power in this way will end up just like this. The very existence of this agency is the problem.

  7. Nate

    “Why is Hawley so much smarter now than he was from 2005 to 2009, when he was in charge of the TSA?”

    He has a book coming out next week. Though I’m certain this has nothing to do with his heartfelt epiphany.

  8. SHG

    The minute everybody started sceaming “save me, save me,” on September 12th, there was no stopping it. And once it exists, it will never go away since we couldn’t ever live without it.

  9. Onlooker

    Ha! Should have figured there was a motive of that sort here. Self serving B.S. for sure. Though you have to wonder if he realizes just how this makes him look to most thinking people.

  10. Onlooker

    Yes, human nature and the fear factor triumph once again. It’s all so depressingly predictable.

  11. Frank

    I have a dream. I have a dream that the war that is terrorizing peaceful citizens is over and that the war crimes tribunal is being held in a small town in Pennsylvania with the zip code 18241.

    Through the auspices of Google Earth I have already picked out a lovely place for the firing squad and gallows (ten nooses, no waiting).

  12. darius404

    Compared to Hawley? Yes, most definitely. It’s too bad Schneier’s anti-TSA juju doesn’t work in the heart of their stronghold.

  13. Amy Alkon

    Great post — and Nate is right: He’s got “plenty to say” because he has a book coming out. It is my most fervent wish that it ends up in woodpulpers across America.

  14. Lisa Simeone

    Funny how Hawley has suddenly changed his tune, since he got his ass handed to him by Bruce Schneier at The Economist, and since he’s now flacking a book.

  15. Fisher1949

    So Hawley finally admits that TSA is a joke. Where was this common sense when he was making up the 3-1-1 rule?

    Maybe now that he gets groped by the dirtbags he hired he has had a change of heart.

    Maybe Pistole and Napolitano will have a similar revelation when they are subjected to the abusive system they’ve created.

    Maybe Congress will listen to the former TSA Director when he tells them that it is a failure. They sure aren’t listening to us.

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