Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Undercover investigators tested security procedures at dozens of the nation’s airports and found major failures. They were able to get weapons, fake explosives and other potentially dangerous items through security checkpoints in 67 out of 70 tests. The revelations led to the ouster of the acting head of the Transportation Security Administration, a group run by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced immediate steps to address problems highlighted by the investigators. They include re-evaluating screening equipment and new training for front-line personnel. We look at these and other measures to address airport security.
- Chad Wolf Vice president, Wexler|Walker; former assistant administrator for security policy, Transportation Security Administration.
- John Pistole President, Anderson University; former administrator, Transportation Security Administration; 26-year veteran of the FBI with extensive national security and counterterrorism experience.
- Michael Greenberger Founder and director, University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security; professor, University of Maryland Carey School of Law; former director of trading and markets, Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
- Patrick Tucker Technology editor, Defense One; author of "The Naked Future: What Happens in a World that Anticipates Your Every Move?"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Federal undercover teams recently tested security at dozens of U.S. airports. They were able to get weapons or simulated bombs through checkpoints 95 percent of the time. In response, the head of the Transportation Security Administration or TSA was removed from his post and the Department of Homeland Security called for changes.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about security at U.S. airports, Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, Patrick Turner, technology editor of The Atlantic media publication "Defense One" and Chad Wolf of Wexler/Walker, formerly with the TSA. But first, joining us from phone from Indiana is John Pistole. He's president of Anderson University. He retired last year as TSA administrator. He served under Presidents Bush and Obama as deputy director of the FBI.
MS. DIANE REHMJohn Pistole, it's good to have you with us. Tell us what you make of the 95 percent failure rate in these undercover tests.
MR. JOHN PISTOLEWell, good morning, Diane. Yeah, it's completely unacceptable, obviously, and there is a number of things that Secretary Jeh Johnson has indicated he's looking at and I think that's -- he's right on track. It usually comes down to three things. One, is the technology working as its designed, two, are the standard operating procedures appropriate for the current threats and then, three, are the officers themselves following the SOP given what that technology -- both the capabilities and the limitations.
MR. JOHN PISTOLEAnd I think it's important not to minimize the results at all, but these tests are designed to probe the system to look for potential vulnerabilities and to try to identify those before an actual terrorist would so TSA can adapt and be prepared, hopefully, for these evolving threats. So it's a combination of things that Secretary Johnson has outlined and, obviously, something substantially wrong happened.
MR. JOHN PISTOLEIn my experience, it's usually been a combination of those three. So it's not one independent thing, it's things related to each other.
REHMWell, you think it's problems with the technology or is it the problems with personnel. I've had an email this morning from a former TSA employee who talks about morale problem throughout the TSA and management that has absolutely no idea what's going on at the checkpoints.
PISTOLEYeah, I think it's a combination of things and I think Secretary Johnson has indicated that he is planning to meet with the CEOs, perhaps chief technology officers also of some of these technology companies that provide the equipment because we've known, really since TSA was stood up, that there is no perfect solution, that there's no perfect technology and we know there's no perfect human.
PISTOLESo when you have those limitations, how do you best put together as system recognizing the limitations in technology and recognizing the very demanding, challenging job that these security officers have where, you know, the summer, over 2 million passengers a day are being screened and so how do you take all that and make it into the most effective security, but do it in an efficient way so you don't have two hour wait times at every checkpoint where you're patting everybody down and doing all those things.
PISTOLESo they talk about risk-based intelligence-driven. The intelligence on the front end is really critically as TSA is part of this whole continuum of national security with the intelligence community and the law enforcement community and homeland security commission. So all those things working together.
REHMSo I must say I think I'm probably among millions of Americans who wonder whether we're any safer now than we were before all these new processes were instituted after 9/11.
PISTOLEYeah, I think that's a good question, Diane. And it's something that, because of the continuing drumbeat of terrorist intent in bringing down an aircraft, a Western aircraft in particular, and even oven one bound for the U.S. specifically and the ability of groups like AQAP and some other groups to adapt their construction and concealment of especially non-metallic IEDs and provides explosive devices, there's clearly intent to do something bad as we've see with a number of attempts, you know, since 9/11.
PISTOLEThat being said, the question is recognizing that, again, you have to facilitate the movement of people and goods, how do you do that in a reasonable way? And intelligence is the best way to do that. The prescreening of people because of what Congress requires, name, date of birth and gender, allows DHS, TSA and the community to access somebody ahead of time. Are they on a watch list? Are they low risk? And the known trusted travel programs do that also.
PISTOLEThe bottom line here, though, is that these test results are completely unacceptable and the steps have to be taken. I think Secretary Johnson has outlined those steps and obviously takes it very seriously.
REHMI must say I wonder whether you were as shocked as I was to see the graphic reproduction of a guy walking through the security device with a plastic device strapped on his back that apparently TSA did not catch. I mean, that is pretty blatant, Dr. Pistole.
REHMI mean, it really makes you wonder whether there is any real effort on the part of those folks who've been hired by an outside firm to do their job.
PISTOLEYeah. So that's something that I know Secretary Johnson will look at. Clearly, the vast majority of TSA employees are hard-working, dedicated folks who are focused on the national security and preventing terrorists from doing bad things. That being said, I think there is a back to basics that is needed now to look at what these shortcomings are all about.
PISTOLEAnd, again, that's that whole reason for this covert testing, whether by the IG or government accountability office or TSA's own red team. The whole purpose is to identify potential vulnerabilities and then to learn from those and improve on those in a way that prevents an actual terrorist from actually doing something, so.
REHMI wonder whether you think we ought to go back to making those TSA officers employees of the government rather than private industry.
PISTOLEWell, so that's an option for every airport. You know, there's about 450 airports in the U.S. The private companies provide the frontline security in about two dozen of those, but every airport operator has the ability to request, petition TSA, if you will, to become privatized. The vast majority, obviously, the ones I spoke to during my four and a half years at TSA, were either pleased or very pleased with TSA and didn't want to make a change.
PISTOLEBut they had that option. The privatized airports, San Francisco and Kansas City being the largest of those, they still have the TSA equipment, the SOPs and supervision by TSA. It's just the frontline employees, the screeners, if you will, who are private employees. So I think it's important that there be some layer of security. I prefer the federal model just because I have federal government background and experience.
PISTOLEBut I think in all the covert testing that's been done and the customer satisfaction, if you will, surveys, the come out about the same. So some are slightly better, some are not quite as good, but all in all, I think, rather privatized or TSA federal government, I think it really comes down to, again, this back to basics look at how do these devices get through and, for example, just looking at the experience level of the officers where these devices were smuggled through.
PISTOLEWere they new employees?
PISTOLEWere they older? You know, things like that. Going back to...
REHMCan you tell us anything about the bomb threats that were made yesterday against five airlines? Authorities say they were not credible, but they did disrupt travel.
PISTOLEThat's the challenge, Diane, because any time a bomb threat is called in, it has to be taken as credible until proven otherwise. When you think about it, though, how many credible terrorists would call in a threat ahead of time to give authorities a chance to disrupt the actual bombing? So obviously, Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day 2009, they didn't advertise that. That was an AQAP plot. The liquids plot from the UK in '06, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber in December of '01, they don't advertise.
PISTOLEThe actual terrorists don't usually advertise that they're getting ready to do something. They'll take credit afterwards. But unfortunately, each time a bomb threat is communicated to the authorities, action has to be taken to mitigate that risk in case it is viable. And so it's a huge disruption to the airline industry, to law enforcement, Homeland Security officials and it's a distraction, frankly, that keeps people from focusing on potentially real threats and so that's something -- why there's federal criminal statutes against that.
PISTOLEAnd people can, and in my mind should, go to jail for making those threats because of the disruption.
REHMJohn Pistole, he's president of Anderson University in Indiana. He retired last year as TSA administrator. Thank you so much for joining us.
PISTOLEThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd welcome back. You've heard now from John Pistole. He was the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration for about four years. I want you to know, we did invite a rep of the TSA to join today's program. They did not even give us a response. So that's where they stand. Three people who did are here in the studio, Michael Greenberger, he's at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, Patrick Tucker, technology editor for Defense One and author of "The Naked Future: What Happens in a World that Anticipates Your Every Move?" and Chad Wolf, vice president, Wexler/Walker consulting firm. He's former assistant administrator for security policy at the Transportation Security Administration. Michael Greenberger, your thoughts about what John Pistole had to say about transport security.
MR. MICHAEL GREENBERGERWell, to me, it was a disappointing conversation. He was the head of the TSA right up to December, the end of December 2014, and I thought his approach was that of an interested observer in a problem that he had responsibility for until quite recently. In terms of the reaction to this, I can only state the obvious and echo your view and I think the view of millions of Americans, which is a state of shock over this result. Americans have familiarity with this process. Several hundred million go through it every year. It's an extremely intrusive, invasive process, take off your shoes, take off your belt. People are walking around holding up their pants going through the screening.
MR. MICHAEL GREENBERGERAmericans know that billions of dollars have been spent on technology, and while I think there was a recognition there were problems here, there had been prior reports that indicated problems, the depth of this problem is really, I think, just have to say from the beginning, it's shocking.
REHMChad Wolf, you've worked for the TSA. How do you explain this high failure rate?
MR. CHAD WOLFWell, you can't explain it. It -- as Pistole said, it's unacceptable. It's damaging to TSA, and, quite frankly, it's dangerous. I mean, when you look at Red Team testing, it's been around since TSA was created, so over 13 years and before that with the FAA. So...
REHMSo explain exactly what happens in the Red Team.
WOLFSo Red Team testing happens at TSA on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. So every day, you have TSA inspectors, DHS, IG inspectors trying to test the system, trying to smuggle simulants past that checkpoint. So this is nothing new for TSA. This is nothing new for the screeners. And there's -- frankly, there's only so many ways that you can smuggle simulants and prohibited items through the checkpoint. So the fact that TSA has such a high failure rate at this point in their history, it points to a larger systemic issue at the agency.
REHMHere's a tweet, saying, but they have no problems finding and confiscating people's leather, men's fingernail scissors, homemade jam, lipstick, breast milk, coffee.
WOLFYeah, and this is a debate that TSA's had, which is they should be, you know, looking for dangerous items, explosive, and not worrying about all the items that you listed there. But -- and it's a struggle that the agency has. But finding explosives at the checkpoint, a screener has about four to five seconds to make a decision, and making sure that they had the technology to do that is an important piece here, and it's not just does the technology work or doesn't work, but it's how TSA interacts with that industry and what type of information is TSA providing to these technology makers so that they can design their machines, so that they can design the algorithms in those machines to make sure that they are operator-friendly, that they are detecting the explosives that TSA needs them to detect.
WOLFAnd I think that's a lot of what we hear from the industry, or I hear from the industry, is that interaction with TSA goes back to the management of TSA. There's -- there's something lacking there.
REHMAnd Patrick Tucker, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. Have you been able to, through that reporting, understand a little better than I do or we do this high failure rate?
MR. PATRICK TUCKERWell, I think that it stems from one particular thing. I'll give you sort of a long answer. Right now, airport security is a joke, and by that I mean something very specific. Fifty years from now, when we tell our grandchildren that we would disrobe while walking and carrying luggage to keep ourselves from being blown up on planes, they will think that it's hilarious. This is obviously a terrible way to approach the issue of airplane safety, and it speaks to a problem that's really fundamental to the system, which is something that Pistole mentioned in his comments, the front-end intelligence.
MR. PATRICK TUCKERWe put way too much weight on the checkpoint system, as opposed to developing a broader, systemic way to develop intelligence about who's getting on these planes and what their actual intent is. So we really fetishize objects, and we ignore humanity, and that's why being a TSA agent is such a bad job, it's why every interaction with a TSA agent is so awful, it's why every TSA administrator is facing an enormous problem. They all have different failures approaching it, but it really just stems from that. We put way too much weight on that front end.
REHMChad spoke about technology. What kind of technology failures have there been in the past? What kind of equipment isn't working the way it should?
TUCKERWell, right now when you go to an airport, you're subjected to a lot of different technological safeguards. Not all of them are publicly known. If you're in most airports, you will encounter backscatter technology. That's that thing that you go through, you hold your hands up like this, they shoot a series of photons at you, and you -- an outline of your body becomes apparent. If you're carrying an object, then that's going to show up. It's a little bit invasive.
TUCKERThere's also a magnometer that you put your luggage in, and you walk through, and it detects metal, things like this. In a couple of airports, not very many, there's millimeter wave scanning, and that's also electron-based. And the thing is, as Pistole mentioned, the people that were -- feel like we're at war with, they're constantly developing ways to get around all of these systems. So when he mentioned al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, AQAP, it's this very particular incident.
TUCKERIn their December issue of their magazine, Inspire, they produced a recipe for something -- a type of concealed bomb. And when we say concealed, I don't mean concealed in your clothing. You had to conceal it within your person, without your corpus. A great writer at the Intercept dubbed it the butt bomb. So that gives you a sense of what it is. And it was made out of a water bottle. It contained a bunch of sort of matchstick, fluid, and coated, like, silicon and things like this.
TUCKERAnd they published that recipe because it was basically able to get around backscatter scanning because the photons don't penetrate soft tissue. They will penetrate your clothing, they bounce back, get picked up by a sensor, create the image, but they won't penetrate soft tissue. So there's no technology that we can create that someone's not going to try to innovate around, when -- as long as the area of, you know, battle lines, the front line, remains that checkpoint, then there's no technology that really is foolproof, and that's something that we haven't really grasped yet.
TUCKERWe keep putting more and more stuff on that front line, and at some point there -- you know, any one of them could fail.
REHMAnd of course, Michael Greenberger, TSA has been without a permanent administrator now for quite a while.
GREENBERGERYes. Interestingly enough, Pistole announced he was leaving on October 28. It wasn't...
GREENBERGER2014. It wasn't until the end of April 2015 that someone was nominated, the president nominee. And now there's been several, almost several months in delay in getting that person confirmed. Interestingly enough, his confirmation hearing, I think, is next week. But I think the point, a lot of people would say, oh, bringing in somebody as an administrator, what is that going to do. But this is clearly a management problem. I mean you talked about the email that you got at the beginning of the show, morale is bad. These people are paid $13 an hour. The task is not something that people really want to do. There's a lot -- there is clearly a lot of inattention to what's going on.
GREENBERGERIn the 24 or 36 hours since we've found out about this, there are all sorts of reports of TSA trainers saying I was never trained for the equipment that I've been asked to supervise. There's a report out of the Harrisburg airport, where TSA personnel said I've been using this equipment, nobody ever trained me on it. So when Pistole says we need an A-to-Z evaluation, we need an A-to-Z evaluation, and there will be an A-to-Z evaluation.
REHMChad, how detrimental is it for an agency to go this long without a permanent body at the head?
WOLFYeah, I mean, it certainly is detrimental. You need top leadership at TSA. You need leadership coming from the top that's setting the tone for the airports across the country and at the checkpoint. And when you see an acting administrator for five to six months, I mean, that individual is just making sure that the trains run on time.
WOLFThere's no high-level decision-making being done, and there's no -- there's no -- you need a culture of performance at the agency, and when you don't have a new administrator, it sends a signal to the frontline screeners that DHS isn't fighting for you, that Congress isn't fighting for you, and you're sort of left on your own. So it does matter.
REHMPatrick, in addition to what many are calling a culture of incompetence, there's also a culture of corruption.
REHMAnd I think we ought to talk about that because it seems to me the two go hand in hand. If you don't care about your job, if you're making $13 an hour, you have a job, but you also have a lot of opportunity to get inside that luggage.
TUCKERRight, right, exactly. So TSA screeners make about $37,000 a year or so. And they get about 120 hours of training. One of the main requirements is that you're able to lift 70 pounds. I think you have to have a high school diploma. But other than that, it's pretty much open to anybody. There's a lot of debate right now about whether or not we're giving them -- we're making that job as important as our sense of urgency says that it should be, and also some of the aspects of that, the corruption bit, right, where we see people complain about TSA going through their luggage and stealing stuff.
TUCKERBut there's also, like, policy problems in the way TSA agents kind of interact with people, and that's stuff that you can deal with at the top end. Let me give you an example. So a piece I wrote today, there's a little bit about the pre-check program. Now the pre-check program is one of the great things that actually TSA is doing correctly, right. A lot of people love this program, and it represents exactly what we're talking about. It's a way to understand who's actually flying by incentivizing people to give more information about themselves to the government so that they can be placed in a pool that experiences a privilege, a benefit, and this makes the entire thing move faster for everybody else.
REHMBecause you go through a separate line.
TUCKERRight, exactly, you go through a separate line, and this decreases the burden on the front end because then they have potentially fewer people to screen. Now one of the problems, though, is that they have a million people enrolled in this program, but that's not a large enough percentage of the flying public. So you keep going to airports, you keep experiencing the same stuff that I'm experiencing, which is that, you know, you're in line with everybody, and that TSA pre-check line looks really empty.
TUCKERPart of the reason it's empty is because people move through there quickly, but another part of the reason is they don't have the enrollment level that they should. So what TSA border security guards will do is this, and it's something that's in policy, that they get to do. It's called managed inclusion. They can go ahead and divert a bunch of people from the, like, regular line to the pre-check line.
REHMAnd then they don't have to disclose what's in their purse, they don't have to open their briefcase, don't have to take their shoes off or anything like that.
TUCKERRight, exactly. So in many ways, number one, you are completely undermining, in a very visual way, the incentive to actually join the pre-check program.
TUCKERYou're also undermining all the math because there's a lot of math that goes into figuring out who belongs in that program and who doesn't and weighting them appropriately.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Chad, you were smiling as he was talking about that program. Why are you smiling?
WOLFYeah, I think TSA has a little bit of egg on their face when it comes to pre-check and the managed inclusion program, and I agree. You go through a pre-check process, and you give a lot of your biographical data.
WOLFAnd to just pull people out of the regular line, even if they're a random basis, which TSA claims it is, and put them through that pre-check line, you're now having individuals getting a very streamlined security check without any background check. So for me, it's a security vulnerability once you start pulling people out of the normal line into this pre-check line because they have not gone through the background checks, the fingerprint checks.
REHMSo it sounds to me as though you've got to have a trained supervisor at every single line to make sure that those kinds of things don't happen, Michael.
GREENBERGERWell, I think this random inclusion has already proven -- there have been stories of felons going through that line, of a known member of a terrorist going through that line. Now, I don't know whether they're true, they're anecdotes, but I'll tell you something, I've been through the -- I'm not a TSA Express person, but I've gone through the line, and I dance for joy when I'm put through it because I don't have to take off my belt and my shoes, what have you. But I think...
REHMWhy haven't you gotten yourself...
REHMYes, thank you.
WOLFOkay, here's the thing, though, right. It's actually kind of a burden. If you're in D.C., the waitlist to get on that pre-check line, you go in for an interview, you have to go in for a physically front interview, it's like two months long or something like that. In New York, I hear that it's different.
REHMNo, no. You know, I mean, I applied online.
WOLFYou apply online.
REHMYou apply online, you get a card telling you, or you get an email message telling you okay, now this is when you come in for your interview. You go in, and that's it.
WOLFWhen did you get your interview after you got your card? When was your interview?
REHMAbout two weeks, three weeks, so, I mean, no big deal. Come on, Michael, get with the program.
GREENBERGEROh, it's terrible being embarrassed in front of a national audience. But you know, the truth is, and I think this happens to a lot of people, you go to the airport, you're in the line, and you say to yourself, my gosh, I'm going to get that TSA Express.
GREENBERGERYou finish the trip, you go home, and you forget about it.
REHMYou forget about it. Yeah, well, I think it makes a lot of sense. Do you?
TUCKERAbsolutely. This is one of the few things that we can do is develop a better understanding of who's getting on the plane. And then you just move all the assets much more logically where they need to be, the assets of the attention of the security guards, the assets of the technology that they're using. Everything begins to work correctly because you don't have traffic jams, and that's what this, these lines represent. We're taking people with a high school diploma and having them deal with a traffic jam, may be carrying bombs, all day.
REHMPatrick Tucker, he's with Defense One and author of "The Naked Future: What Happens in a World that Anticipates Your Every Move?" Short break, when we come back, time to open the phones. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMEarlier in the program we were talking about corruption at the TSA. Almost 400 TSA officers have been fired for stealing from passengers just in the past decade. And a convicted TSA security officer says he was part of a culture of indifference that allowed corrupt employees to prey on passengers' luggage and personal belongings with impunity, thanks to lax oversight and tip-offs from TSA colleagues.
REHMPythias Brown, a former TSA officer at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, admits he stole more than $800,000 worth of items from luggage and security checkpoints over a four-year period. Now, Chad, that would not have had happened right after 9/11. Something has changed since then.
WOLFAbsolutely. Absolutely. And I think it gets to the issue of complacency. And the further you get from 9/11 without an incident here, domestically -- there's been a number of incidents all originating overseas into the U.S. That doesn't touch on TSA screeners here in the U.S. So there really hasn't been a specific incident since 9/11. And I think the further you get away from that, the more complacent that TSA screeners, just by the very nature of that, become.
WOLFAnd it's not only TSA screeners at the frontline, it's TSA headquarters staff. After 9/11 I was there. I mean, there was a sense of urgency. And you double-checked, you triple-checked. And I think the further you get away from that, it becomes a culture. It becomes a culture and it's hard to get out of that. But it starts at the top and it's a leadership issue. It's not only a leadership at TSA headquarters, but it's a leadership there at the airport, with the federal security director, with those frontline supervisors.
WOLFAnd I think that's really where it needs to start. And a lot of what we've heard here about TSA screeners being indifferent, stealing, I mean, that comes back to, yes, low pay is a problem. It's access. It's minimal oversight. But it's also the repercussions. What happens? It's a federalized workforce. And firing a federal employee is a difficult thing to do. And so you have to look at, is, you know, if you go to privatized screeners, is the disciplinary -- is it easier to do? Is hiring, firing -- is that easier?
WOLFSo I think there's a number of things that, as TSA takes a look at this, and I think Congress is gonna take a look at this and do a sort of a comprehensive review of TSA, what are some structural changes at the agency that need to be made, because I think you've seen this incident and the incident in Atlanta and a lot of other smuggling incidents that we've talked about, these aren't isolated incidents. It's a pattern.
GREENBERGERWell, I would say we are very fortunate. I think Senator Coats, who's chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the silver lining in this is that we've been shocked into the action. The normal way we would be shocked into action is a terrorist attack. So I think it's good that we will have attention paid to this. And I really think we will have Congressional Executive Branch, soup to nuts oversight of this.
GREENBERGERAnd leaning corruption to the side, I think the complacency is a big problem, the inattention of the screeners, but -- and the lack of training about how to screen and how to use the equipment, but also there appears to be some of the equipment gets worn down or never functioned correctly. And so we're using equipment that's not effective. And I think all those things are gonna have to be looked at. But I think the point that's been made here -- I can't emphasize enough.
GREENBERGERI know from my own government experience, having a strong, effective leader, and by the way, it does appear that the nominee is very well credentialed. So I think that'll make a big change.
REHMAll right. Let's go to the Sally, in Dallas, Texas. You're on the air.
SALLYThank you so much for taking my call. I just have a comment. I'm confused as to why the logic behind making a sweeping announcement, publicly, that 95 percent -- of the 95 percent ineffectiveness of the TSA before anything has been put in place to address it and make it better. It just seems like this is an open invitation, frankly, a public proclamation that this is an awesome time for anybody who is compelled to want to try to do anything, to try and do it.
WOLFYeah, I don't -- it certainly wasn't a planned announcement. And, again, TSA gets red-team tested daily, weekly and monthly. So they get a lot of these results, a lot of these tests. And the vast majority we never hear anything about. I think in this case, we are hearing something about it and it was "leaked" because of this high failure rate.
WOLFI think the individual, whoever leaked that, thought it was so apprehensible that it needed to be out there. But what -- so that's the first point, it normally is not out there. And, again, TSA gets red-team tested all the time. And the vast majority of those are never made public.
REHMAll right. To Dave, in Kansas City, Kans. You're on the air.
DAVEHi. Hello. I can give you a different point of view. I am a former TSA supervisor. I was forced out because I did my job too well. And what happened was prior to that I was journalist who traveled a lot. And when I was working with my teams we -- I thought outside the box. I had the ability to get some federal officers I was cleared to use to come in and be tests. And we would give them test material. But I didn't follow the book. I went, okay, where would I hide it, not where they tell me they would hide it.
DAVEAnd upper management got on my case. We had 32 red-teams come through. We missed one. And I'm not trying to brag. And I was a small, regional airport with one team. One summer I worked 97 days with one day off. The red-team finally admitted they were coming through because we were catching them so often and I was accused of cheating.
REHMChad, do you want to comment?
WOLFYeah, and I think this is a perfect example. You know, when you have a federal workforce like this, than, yes, there are standard operating procedures written. And if you don't do them the way they do them, if you don't do red-team testing the way they tell you to do them, you will -- your hand will get slapped and there will be repercussions. If, you know, if you have privatized screeners, perhaps there's a little bit more latitude about how you conduct these tests.
WOLFAgain, within the boundaries, within the framework of making sure that they're legitimate tests. But I think they're -- I think what you're seeing here and what the caller demonstrates is the rigid nature of the TSA structure and having a federalized workforce.
TUCKERYeah, yeah, standing operating procedures. I mean, you could do a whole hour on those and all the different ways they could be improved. And how you change that from management. So in an ideal situation, people that were really interested in doing a great job would be able to, in real time, report problems with standard operating procedures or means of improvement to receptive management.
TUCKERAnd that, all of sudden would, result in very rapid and very effective changes in standard operating procedure. Instead, top-down announcements about what standard operating procedures are are administered to pretty much everybody and you don't get potentially the same opportunity for upward feedback and rapid change.
REHMMichael, lots of folks are wondering about how the Israelis do it. Because their airport security seems to be excellent.
GREENBERGERWell, yes. I mean, again, the advantage there is a small country who's not complacent with reason. And they have historically -- I've gone to LL many times. And the screening is intense and it's very, very effective. But they have a much smaller force to work with. You know, the other thing is, when we say a federalized force, the problem identified after 9/11 was using private contractors and not having the ability to control the operation.
GREENBERGERAnd so there was a strong feeling that, as much as possible, it should be federalized. I -- look, we have lots of federal agencies who operate very effectively when the frontline personnel identify problems, changes are made. And I go back to the point, I think complacency and the lack of effective leadership here is going to end up being the central problem. And I think part of that is not training people properly.
GREENBERGERThere are a lot of training experts who have criticized the training process at the TSA. And I think also, you know, making sure the equipment is running properly and people are properly trained. And the final thing I would say is I'm very convinced that the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security, while they have all these programs to identify the most effective equipment, I don't think that's really working very well. And I'm sure that there could be better technology brought to bear on these problems.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Sam, in Sarasota, Fla.
SAMI rolled out with TSA in 2002, worked for 12 and a half years. The airport that I'm presently went private. So we're under private contractor now. I retired from TSA and went to work for the contractor. It's a nightmare. We are understaffed by 50 percent most of the time. We are running checkpoints that require a minimum of 12 people with five people. We're running baggage areas that require a minimum of two with one person.
SAMWe've been probed by people on the watch list and by dummy bombs on their way to Cairo, Egypt. We are being probed. We are understaffed, under-trained and everybody is burned out because we're required to work overtime. Private contractors are not the way to go because, for instance, they promised those of us from TSA that we would get the pay we were making with TSA. We signed contracts to that effect. A month in they brought us all into the office individually and told us we are cutting your pay by a third.
SAMSo now you've got a disgruntled workforce, the only experienced people in the airport are disgruntled because their pay was cut by a third after signing contracts for the pay that we were originally getting. Private contractors are not the way to go and they are dangerous. And Congress and the gentleman (unintelligible) have been pushing…
REHMPatrick, do you want to ask him a question?
SAM…for privatization and his family is involved in the private security business. And we need to shut that down.
REHMAll right. I think Patrick Tucker wants to ask a question.
TUCKERWell, yeah, I was just sort of curious about what some anecdote around this probing that you experienced, where you found like dummy bombs and things like this. How did you find them? And what was that interaction like? Was this something that showed up on a, you know, the x-ray machine, on the back-scatter machine or was there a behavior that somebody noticed, a screener, while that person that was trying to sort of -- I don't know -- mess with the system, something that -- was he exhibiting some behavior that you observed? Oh.
REHMAre you there, Sam?
SAMAnd we did -- we found it in checked baggage. We -- the supervisor in baggage was TSA trained and former TSA employee. He did his job. The management for the contractor dropped the ball. And it was two and a half hours before the bomb appraisal officer from TSA arrived at the airport. We never evacuated the airport. And the whole situation was poorly handled by the management level of the contractor. We on the ground did our job, but the contractor let a lot of stuff slip through the cracks. And the people at the coordination center, at our hub airport, were not up to speed the way they should have been.
REHMSounds that way.
TUCKERYeah, yeah, so this really sort of underscores something really essential. When we talk about different technologies that we can bring to bear on the problem of keeping planes safe, the most important piece of technology remains -- and will remain pretty much forever -- the eyes and ears of the people that are looking at your luggage and looking at you.
TUCKERThere's a really clear case of this. In 1986 there's a woman named Anne-Marie Murphy who was attempting to smuggle like a big ton of plastic explosives through an airport and was caught very simply on the basis of someone screening her that noticed that some of the answers she was giving to questions didn't seem logical. Something as simple as that. She wasn't profiled based on race, any of that. Just really astute…
REHMThey just took her aside and began asking her questions?
TUCKERRight. And some of the stuff that she was saying seemed not to comport with logic. And so they subjected her to some additional screening and they found these plastic explosives. This is the sort of -- when we talk about how to, you know, fix this technologically, we're talking about human beings, getting the right ones there. And…
REHMAnd you're listening to ""The Diane Rehm Show." Chad, do you want to respond to that?
WOLFNo. I -- well, I think at the end of the day the checkpoint will remain sort of a last line of defense. And so when we talk about BDOs, which are Behavioral Detection Officers that TSA has, going through secure flight, going through per-check, giving up a lot of your information, all that is good. And all that is part of the layer of security that TSA has. But the failsafe remains the checkpoint. And to continue to have such high failure rates with red-team testing, it points to a fundamental problem at the checkpoint, that not only applies to TSA screeners and how they're trained and how they operate, but also to the technology.
WOLFAnd making sure that TSA screeners have the most up-to-date technology -- they have anywhere between three and seven seconds to make a decision on whether to, you know, search an individual a little bit more intrusively, to look at a bag a little bit longer. And they need the best technology to make that decision. And right now they don't have that.
REHMSo every time one of these stories blasts out, then they become more cautious. But then they become more lax again, Michael.
GREENBERGERWell, and that's -- we need the leadership that doesn't let them become more lax. And I think the show shouldn't end without saying this, if you go to the TSA blog for the end of 2014, they found 2,200 guns coming through. They found plastic explosives. They found a lot of stuff, very, very dangerous stuff. So when you ask the question are we better off now than we were on September 12, 2001, I think the answer's clearly yes.
GREENBERGERYou talk about terrorists who are very clever and get through, but there are a lot of crazy people who have weapons who could get through and cause a lot of damage. And I think the system can work effectively. It needs to be better managed.
REHMMichael Greenberger, he's at the University of Maryland, Center for Health and Homeland Security, professor of law. He was formerly an official in the Clinton Justice Department dealing with counterterrorism issues. Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One. And Chad Wolf, vice president of Wexler Walker, that's a consulting firm, and former assistant administrator for security policy at the Transportation Security Administration. Let us hope, gentlemen, that things get better. Thanks for being here.
GREENBERGERThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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