From The Archives: A 2008 Conversation With Barbara Walters
A conversation from the archives with Barbara Walters about her 2008 memoir "Audition," a story of family challenges, celebrity gossip and blazing a trail in TV news.
It’s a tough moment for the Transportation Security Administration. The agency is under fire for long security screening lines at airports across the country. The head of the TSA is on Capitol Hill this morning, answering questions about the delays and what he is doing to fix them. A shake-up in TSA leadership has further focused attention on the agency’s troubles; the top security official was this week removed from his post, amid allegations of mismanagement and revelations that he received huge bonuses. This all comes just days after the EgyptAir crash put concerns about travel security front and center. We get an update on airport security and the TSA.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. As we enter the busy summer travel season, it's taking even longer to get through airport security than usual. The head of TSA is on Capitol Hill this morning to answer questions about long security checkpoint lines across the country. Earlier this week, the TSA's top security official got the boot and confidence in the agency may be waning.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about the latest in airport security, Chad Wolf, former assistant administrator for security at the TSA. Joining us by phone from Tyson's Corner, Virginia, Philip Mudd formerly of the CIA and FBI, now with CNN. And by phone from Dallas, Texas, Scott McCartney of The Wall Street Journal. I'm sure many of you have questions, comments, your own experiences you'd like to share.
MS. DIANE REHMGive us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MR. CHAD WOLFThank you. Good morning.
MR. PHILIP MUDDGood to be with you.
REHMThank you. And first, joining us by phone from the airport in Puerto Rico, J. David Cox. He's national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners. Thanks for joining us, Mr. Cox. I know you're calling for Congress to fund 6,000 new screeners. That really seems like a high number. Is that really what you believe it's going to take to get TSA back in full function?
MR. J. DAVID COXThere is no question it will take 6,000 additional screeners. That was the level that we had in 2011. We are down 6,000 screeners from 2011 and air traffic has increased by 15 percent, the amount of carryon baggage has increased astronomically. For us to be able to do the job, to keep the lines moving and, first of all, our first priority is safety of the American passengers. To provide for their safety, it is going to take additional resources to make it happen.
REHMTell me why you think that Congress really decided to take the money funding those 6,000 screeners away from TSA?
COXWell, part of it, and I apologize for the background noise. I'm in an airport.
COXReady to board my flight. But there is a tax charged on every single ticket that is sold in this country to pay for security to fund TSA. Congress chose, in their wisdom, to divert $1.25 million -- billion, excuse me, not a million -- billion dollars of that money to reduce the federal deficit instead of properly funding TSA and we see who's paying the price for it, the American citizens and the transportation security officers nationwide.
REHMYou know, the other thing we hear about, Mr. Cox, is the rapid turnover of employees who are part of this program. Why is that?
COXMost of the employees are hired part time and only given part time status. So therefore, as soon as they get the opportunity of another federal job, of a full-time position, they take it and leave. Also, transportation security officers are some of the lowest paid federal employees. They do not have Title V right, as all other employees, which is basic employment rights of the civil service, so all of those things come to play a factor in the low morale as well as the quick turnover because people want full-time jobs.
REHMSo what you're saying is you think that if they were given full civil service positions, full-time jobs, you think you'd have a better outcome both in terms of the employees themselves and the drop in turnover.
COXYeah. There is no question about that. We definitely would because...
COX...people -- it takes a while to train these officers and then, obviously, when they get a chance to go to work for another agency and get a full-time job with better pay, better benefits and better job security, what are they going to do? They're going to take that job.
REHMAll right. And what other changes, besides adding more personnel and creating positions as full-time, what other changes do you think would improve things for screeners?
COXTo treat them as all other federal employees are treated with Title V protections, which is the civil service law where that they have rights to collectively bargain, they have rights to grieve in a workplace dispute and to be treated just like other agencies and homeland security. Border patrol, customs, ICE agents, coast guard, FEMA, they are all treated under Title V protections, but TSA was singled out and treated differently and was treated with a much lower pay scaled.
REHMBut realistically, how do -- how soon do you think that might happen or do you think it would happen at all?
COXI believe there is a good possibility that it can happen, that Congress does have the ability to do an emergency appropriation and I think the president is certainly pushing for the emergency appropriation and that it's something that Congress needs to do before this situation gets worse and we have much, much longer lines at airports around the country.
REHMAnd I hear all of that background announcing going on there, Mr. Cox, at the airport in Puerto Rico. You know that the leadership shifts are happening at the top of the TSA. Is there hope that screeners will get some of the things you're asking for with those changes at the top?
COXYes. We're feeling very comfortable. I had an in-depth conversation yesterday with Administrator Neffenger concerning may of the issues with the screener. We're working with Secretary Johnson of Homeland Security. So AFGE is actively pursuing to improve working conditions and to get Congress to do the emergency funding to add the additional 6,000 screeners that's needed to meet the needs of the American people.
REHMAll right. J. David Cox, he's national president of the AFGE. That's the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners. Thank you so much for joining us.
COXThank you and I'm boarding my airplane now. Take care.
REHMOkay, sir. Thanks a lot. And turning to you now, Chad Wolf, considering what you have just heard from Mr. Cox, do you think he's overly optimistic or do you think there's a real chance Congress will do a turnaround on this?
WOLFYeah, I think he's overly optimistic. I think Congress has reallocated some funding here in the short term to hire additional TSA screeners. What the long term fix is, is a little bit unclear. Mr. Cox talks about civil service attributes that the screeners need. I'm not sure that folks in Congress agree with that, particularly Republicans in Congress agree with that. Perhaps instead of increasing the wage, increasing their civil service benefits, I think there are some in Congress that look at the privatized model.
WOLFThe U.S. is one of the only countries that has a federal workforce that does aviation security so there are other models in Europe and in Canada that says it can be done with privatized screeners and it perhaps can be done at the price structure that TSA has now. Two of the largest airports -- or two large airports, Kansas City and San Francisco, have privatized screeners and from my knowledge, they don't have a lot of the issues that some of these other airports do.
WOLFSo I think before we start throwing a lot of dollars and a lot of bodies at the problem, we really have to sort of understand what the issues are.
REHMTell you how -- what's worked.
WOLFUnderstand what the issues are.
WOLFI'd like to go back to an issue that he brought up, is what can we give screeners -- what can we provide screeners to help them do their job and I think we need to get the right tools to the screeners because we're asking a lot of them, to do a very difficult job at the checkpoint. And in my mind, they have some of -- some not-so-great technology at the checkpoint. So I think we need to get the right technology at the checkpoint, which will allow them to do their job better.
WOLFTSA uses really advanced screening technology for check baggage. They've been using that for the past 15 years.
WOLFIt's called CT. I'd like to see that at the checkpoint. There's no reason they can't utilize that technology at the checkpoint. It would increase throughput tremendously. Over 50 percent.
REHMWhy did they not do the same at both?
WOLFIt's a great -- yeah, it's a great question. I think you got to go back two or three years after TSA was created. The big push was to make sure that the checked baggage was screened. They did that and then they had sort of a buyer's remorse. They were doling out too much money.
REHMInteresting. Chad Wolf, he's vice president at Wexler/Walker and former assistant administrator for security policy at TSA. When we come back, we'll talk with our other guests and you. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about what's happening with airport security and the shake-up at the TSA. Let's go back for a moment and talk with Philip Mudd about the recent EgyptAir crash, and that has certainly brought airport security to the top of everybody's mind again. Start by telling us what the latest information we have on it is.
MUDDWell, if you look at what we've seen over the past week, the initial question was whether we had terrorism, and now what we're seeing is no claim of terrorism, no indication that anybody onboard had linkages to terrorism. We have obviously pieces of the airplane being picked up by various surveillance crews, ships out in the ocean, including the Egyptians. There's a search now on for the black box. I suspect that that will provide some of the answers, or I'm sure it will, that we've been waiting for for the past week.
MUDDAnd then a couple days ago, the indication that there was smoke and heat in the cockpit and other areas of the plane. So it's not clear what happened. Some of the indications in my judgment suggest, especially the lack of a claim by any terror group, that this was not a terror incident, but we don't know, and I don't think we'll have a definitive answer until the black box is found.
REHMAnd how long do you think it's going to be before they find that black box?
MUDDWell, we have a debris field now. The currents in the Mediterranean are a little bit easier to manage than the current out, say, in the Indian Ocean, where we had that airliner disaster some time ago. So I would expect sometime in the relatively near future, the next week or two, that they would find the box, as long as they can get the right surveillance vehicles.
MUDDThis is deep sea. You can't get standard sort of submarines to operate at this level. So you need different types of high-tech devices to do this. But I think especially since they found the debris field, they should be able to pick it up relatively soon.
REHMHow do we know that there was smoke in the cockpit?
MUDDThere are sensors in the aircraft, a lot of sensors that will give off an automatic signal when there is, for example in a bathroom, particulate matter, in other words when there's smoke in the bathroom or when there's heat coming out, in this case from under the cockpit. Those sensors are automatically reporting. It does not require human intervention. In other words, the pilots do not have to do anything for the sensor to start reporting.
MUDDSo those sensors were showing in the immediate time before the aircraft went down that something was amiss in the plane, and that something included both smoke and heat.
REHMOkay, so though there has been no claim by any group that terrorism was involved, you cannot at this point rule it completely out.
MUDDI think that's correct, but people in my business would say that as time passes, the judgment that this is terrorism is not supported so far by the facts. So the facts as I would see them on the terror side would be did any group claim, do we have any indication from the investigation into both the crew and the passengers but also into people at the airports, France and in North Africa where this aircraft transited, were involved, and do we have government officials, security officials in countries like France, the UK and the United States, who see any signs from looking at ISIS or al-Qaeda communications that they're talking about this behind the scenes.
MUDDIf you look at all that range of information, I've not seen anything that suggests any peep from a terror group both in public or behind the scenes. So as time goes on, you start to say if a terror group was involved, what is their motivation for not publicizing their involvement. It doesn't make sense.
REHMAll right, Chad Wolf, do you want to comment?
WOLFYeah, I think Philip's got it right. I think at least from the security officials overseas, though, until a definitive decision is made, they've got to assume that it is terrorism-related. And so they've got to go through a variety of different checks and things that they do, not only from the Paris airport but for everywhere that that aircraft was prior to -- prior to its last departure.
WOLFSo I agree with Philip. All indications are starting to point away from terrorism-related. However, security officials both here in the U.S. and overseas still have to be very vigilant and have to assume that it is terrorism-related until they hear otherwise.
REHMAll right, and let's bring in Scott McCartney. He's travel editor for the Wall Street Journal. Any comment on that Egyptian air?
MR. SCOTT MCCARTNEYWell, I think it's important -- I agree with what's been said. I also think it's important to just as aggressively look, and I'm sure investigators are, at mechanical issues and other things that could -- that could have caused that crash. Obviously, you know, it appears that there was some kind of catastrophic fire. We don't know the source. But if it was something wrong with the airplane, we've got to figure that out quickly, too.
REHMAll right, and Scott, all this comes after really weeks of concerns about security screening and wait times across the U.S. Why such long lines?
MCCARTNEYWell, this has really been building for some time. I think it really starts last summer, when you had revelations of Tiger Team tests of TSA security and really abysmal failure rates at detecting weapons. And so the TSA's response was to change procedures, to retrain all the screeners, to commit that all alarms would be resolved.
MCCARTNEYThings were changed in software with body scanners, where items that wouldn't have been subjected to a pat down before now get a pat down. Sort of I think coincidentally, there was an upgrade on the X-ray machines at the end of 2014, where new software flags more items. There was some concern about smaller devices that terrorists might have based on manuals that were found. And so smaller items in bags that can't be cleared, have to be manually cleared.
MCCARTNEYAll that has slowed down lines. Then in the fall of 2015, TSA decided to do away with the managed inclusion -- Managed Inclusion 2 Program. It was the one where a guy would stand there with an iPad and randomly put people into the pre-check lines. That really decreased the population of people going through pre-check, pushed those people into the main security line. So it made them longer.
MCCARTNEYTSA then had to cut back on hours at some pre-check lanes to balance staffing. You know, the earlier discussion about staffing, TSA actually gave up money because their -- the staffing formula said we're going to have more people going through pre-check, so we don't need as many staff, and the result was now we've got fewer people going through pre-check, but the staffing formula wasn't adjusted.
MCCARTNEYSo you had all this coming together. Really in January and February, we were seeing long lines at airports, and that's when the alarm bells started going off. That's when we first started writing about it. That's when airports started threatening to, you know, maybe we need to look at privatized security screening. And airlines were saying holy smokes, if we've got long lines in January and February, what's it going to be like in summer, and now we see it.
REHMExactly. Philip Mudd, do you want to comment?
MUDDYeah, I think we have to remember, as we debate this, and I'm obviously the counterterrorism person in this conversation, that we're looking for perfection, that is we're asking why lines are this long and we're asking about whether we should privatize TSA, but we're also looking at a success rate that's remarkable and the anticipation from the American public that no plane ever goes down when 760 million people will be screened this year.
MUDDThe last thing I'd say is that we have to recollect, too, that the adversary, that is ISIS and al-Qaeda, is making advances that challenge TSA. They're looking to create more and more devices that do not have a metal signature or something that appears quickly and clearly on a traditional screening mechanism.
MUDDSo one of the reasons I see for these lines, and I'm not an expert on lines, but I am an expert on terrorism, is that the adversary has figured out ways to make it harder to screen and therefore slows down the screening process as you try to look for more and more advanced devices that a terrorist might try to bring on an airplane.
REHMAll right, Philip, but go back to Chad Wolf's comment about the kind of screening devices used to send the -- the checked luggage through versus the kind of screening devices used to take carry-on devices. So if you did the checked luggage screening device at both ends, wouldn't that help?
MUDDI think it would. And it raises a broader question. We have to remember, this is not about risk avoidance. This is about risk management. I for example am in the pre-check line. If I decided to radicalize today, I'm a risk to the system, but the system has created a way to shorten lines by saying some people are less risky than others. We're also going to be saying, I think, and there's a debate now, about whether there's a different way to manage lines.
MUDDShould we take people whose bags ping out of the line because that's -- that really slows down the process? I think there's another aspect to this we haven't talked about, airlines starting to charge for bags. I fly probably once a week. The amount of stuff people bringing on an aircraft, I'm guessing, I'm certain of this, has increased in the past few years. So I think the broad question is not just how you increase security at the front but what kind of risk are we going to take to put someone in a pre-check line, to accelerate, how quickly you do the screening. There's a risk process here, as well.
REHMBut don't you have to really, in order to get that pre-check, I've been through that, and it does seem to me that that's a pretty serious kind of check process, Chad Wolf.
WOLFYeah, the background check and the different name checks that you go through through pre-check are pretty comprehensive. The issue that TSA is having right now is their goal was to get 25 million into pre-check, and right now they have nine million.
REHMWhy, why is it?
WOLFSo their idea to help manage the lines was to move people into pre-check.
WOLFAnd what they've seen is that's not working.
WOLFIt could be a variety of different reasons. One, the cost. So it's $85. For an individual, business traveler, that's not a big deal. They'll pay that in a heartbeat.
WOLFFamily of four is different issue because you tack on that with your checked baggage fees, and now in addition to the airline ticket, you're paying $300, $400, $500 to travel.
REHMOkay, what about the checked baggage fee?
WOLFYeah, well, you know, that's something that the airlines and TSA have to work together to solve. You know, putting more items through the checkpoint is a concern for TSA. However, you have to balance that with the passenger convenience. A lot of passengers like to carry their luggage on because they don't want to wait for it at the other end. And so, you know, I believe TSA, you know, shouldn't be negotiating with airlines on what's the right checked baggage fee, what should we put through the airport. Get the right technology at the checkpoint, and it solves everything.
REHMWhat about that, Chad Wolf?
MCCARTNEYSo Diane, I'd like to add on the guests, with the X-ray machine at the checkpoint, there are four times as many carry-on bags that go through the X-ray screeners than checked bags go through the machines that are now installed in most airports in line. And there -- the issues that I've heard with those are the throughput is actually slower on the machine, now you're probably going to get fewer false alarms, so that's the question of whether it actually would speed up the lines or not.
MCCARTNEYThose machines are quite large, although they've come down in size. They can be quite heavy, and structurally there are issues in different airports. But it's not clear to me that that would be an improvement if you -- sometimes the checked bag machines back up tremendously at busy airports. In Miami, bags miss connections all the time because the machines -- and, you know, sometimes you get a huge pile of bags that have to be resolved from the checked bag machines.
REHMScott McCartney, he is a middle-seat columnist and travel editor for the Wall Street Journal. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's talk for a moment before we open the phones about the latest on leadership changes within the agency. Chad Wolf, what's happening?
WOLFSure. TSA's assistant administrator for security operations, a gentleman by the name of Kelly Hoggan, was removed. So he's been reassigned to other duties inside TSA. I don't believe that those have been announced yet. And the issue here is that position is responsible for the airports, is responsible for the screeners, the mix of screeners, how they're trained, anything and everything to do with the airports.
WOLFAnd I think this is the TSA administrator, Neffenger's way of saying that this is a serious problem, the wait times that we have are unacceptable, and so he's holding someone accountable. He's also...
REHMAnd wasn't there some concern about his receiving bonuses throughout this period?
WOLFAbsolutely, I believe it was $90,000, you know, over a 13-month period. Can you blame him, or do you blame someone else, whoever approved those bonuses is really the issue. But it does come back. But I think what this also does, with Neffenger, is to say that he becomes personally responsible now for what's going on at the airport. You can say that he's been responsible because he's the administrator, but he's been working with a group of executives that he didn't bring in.
WOLFSlowly over time, he's replacing those executives, sort of having his own team on the ground.
REHMScott McCartney, do you want to comment?
MCCARTNEYNo, I think -- I think Chad's got it right. I think Mr. Neffenger is putting his own team in place. And, you know, he's -- he's on the hot seat right now, and he's -- from Capitol Hill to news meetings to television shows, he is now the face of TSA, and how this summer goes will probably determine whether he gets to keep his job.
REHMAnd Philip Mudd, any comment?
MUDDYeah, just a couple thoughts, and as someone who's served as a government official for 25 years, I have to say I admire somebody who comes into a leadership position and says we're not going to do business as usual, especially when they were seeing lines as we are today, and I'm going to hold people accountable.
MUDDThe second thing I'd say is, again as someone who's served in senior positions, $90,000 as bonus in my experience is unheard of. I mean, I would just have questions as an insider about how you authorize that kind of money. The comment about who authorized this earlier I think is completely appropriate. In my world, a $25,000 bonus annually was viewed as significant. I wonder how somebody decided, especially with questions about what was going on in airports, to give somebody $90,000, unheard of.
REHMAnd there was also the issue of the auditors from the Department of Homeland Security officers who last year got fake bombs and weapons through screeners, Chad Wolf.
WOLFRight, so it -- you know, his increases or the raises that we're talking about come at a time where TSA's failure rate was over 96 percent, when you talk about these red team testing and getting simulated prohibited items through the checkpoint. And so the optics of a senior official at TSA receiving performance bonuses.
WOLFMore or less while his workforce is failing at abysmal rates, the optics of that are, you know, unreal.
REHMAnd there were also allegations of employees saying they had been retaliated against, reassigned because they reported various misconduct by senior managers.
WOLFRight, they've had a couple of congressional hearings over the last several months that outline that, and it goes back to the culture of TSA. And I think Neffenger is trying to change that, but it's a big organization, and it's going to require time.
REHMAn uphill battle, all right. When we come back, we'll open the phones, take some of your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the frustrations that have been building in airports as passengers encounter long lines and slow screening. Worries about TSA missing bombs and one individual Doug, in D.C., says please explain how 90 percent of test bomb materials planted by Homeland Security went through TSA screening without detection last year. Chad, can you talk about that?
WOLFYeah, I think a couple of different reasons or areas to look at. One, which Admiral Neffenger has commented on publicly, is the type of training that the screeners get there at the checkpoint. And what's their primary focus? Some have argued in the past that their primary focus was throughput, getting passengers through that line as quickly as possible. And when you do that, perhaps you sacrifice security. Perhaps you don't, you know, resolve all the alarms that are going off on individuals and in baggage. And so, that's certainly a cause of that.
WOLFThe other issue, I think, is the technology. I think the whole body imaging, so that's the millimeter wave machines that individuals go through to detect explosives on the body, I think they've had some real problems with that. They're working to fix that. But the other issue that Scott brought up and I brought up earlier is that X-ray machine at the checkpoint. It's essentially, you know, a two dimensional X-ray that we've had technology -- 20, 30 years old.
WOLFYes, they've improved it a little bit over time, but it still requires a screener to make a judgment on whether something in that bag needs to be looked at. Which is the complete opposite to what they do in check baggage, which is -- it's an algorithm. It's a computer making an assessment, and if the computer does not, you know, flag that bag, the bag goes through. Someone's not looking at it, and so you will see increase in throughput, you will see processing times increase, utilizing that, so I think it's a valid argument.
WOLFIt's something that TSA really needs to look at. I think, you know, when they look at screening or training screeners, putting more bodies at the checkpoint, that's important. You need to open up all the lanes at a checkpoint. Absolutely. But you also need to make sure that the screeners have the right tools to do their job, and I have a real question with it right now.
REHMHere's an email from Alex, who says, why doesn't the TSA change their approach? Static checkpoints present a single obstacle that will be bypassed. Integrating screening measures throughout airport infrastructure could cut down on frustration and increase security. Philip Mudd?
MUDDI don't quite understand the question. You're talking about hundreds of millions of people going through airports. They're going through with baggage and they're going to have to stop at some point for a security officer, not only to look at that baggage, but potentially to pose questions with them. I don't know how you do that without some sort of static process at a single checkpoint to look at the baggage and to talk to the passenger. I think, I agree completely with the conversation a moment ago. There are questions that we're going to have to resolve about new technology.
MUDDAbout how we take risks with who we put into pre-screening programs, about how many people we hire. But suggesting that there's some way around having an individual face a security officer who's looking at his bags, I don't quite know how that would work. I don't, I don't see an option to that.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Jessica in Little Elm, Texas. You're on the air.
JESSICAThank you for taking my call.
JESSICAI'm wondering how much we're making TSA, as an agency, a scapegoat, because we're asking them to follow the American model of doing more with less. It seems to me that we have continued to be reactive when it comes to terrorism. TSA got a huge bill of what they were supposed to do after 9/11 and subsequently, any time we have discovered a terror plot, like a shoe bomber, you know, now we're supposed to take off our shoes and go through screening. We have a fear about liquids being combined in a certain way, so now there's limitations on that.
REHMAll right. Scott McCartney.
MCCARTNEYWell, I think TSA, from my perspective, they have to respond to the threats. They -- when, you know, once we know that people are trying to get on airplanes with underwear bombs, then you got to have body scanners. And I think that, you know, they've been effective at some of that. It really gets to the balancing question that I think we've all been discussing. There's no question that the threats have gotten more serious and more sophisticated, and so the screening has gotten -- has tried to get more effective.
MCCARTNEYThe screening, obviously, with the test failures, I think, I think most people agree, needed to get more effective. That has slowed it down. I think that's a marginal aspect of the longer lines. The staffing issue is also a huge aspect. When you have large crowds on Monday morning in the Atlanta airport, and only half of the screening lanes are open, it's a staffing issue. So, I think we -- you know, it's always been a question of, can you introduce enough threat that terrorists, the bad guys, think they -- there's a good chance they're going to get caught. And that's what TSA is trying to do.
REHMAll right, to Terry in Raleigh, North Carolina. Hi there. You're on the air.
TERRYHi. My question is this. Why is this the tax payers' bill? The airlines are making money hand over fist, you bring a bag on a major airline and they're going to charge you 25 dollars a bag. You know, we kind of chuckle at all the money they're making, but as I recall, it was how many years ago they were losing money and we bailed them out? And now, they've got all these security problems. Why is this our bill? Why isn't it their bill?
REHMOh sure, Scott, go ahead.
MCCARTNEYSo, so it really is the traveler who is paying for the service. On every airline ticket, every time you go through a checkpoint, it's five dollars and sixty cents. And so, 11 dollars and 20 cents round trip. That's what you're paying for security. Now, some of that money has actually been diverted to other sources, so it's the traveler that's sort of subsidizing the tax payer. Not the other way around. The other argument I would make is that this is a national security issue. When airplanes fly into buildings and kill 3,000 people, become weapons of mass destruction, it is a national security issue that tax payers do have a responsibility to pay for.
WOLFYeah, I agree with Scott. And this is a debate that Congress, TSA, DHS and others had several years ago and continue to have, but he's exactly right. This is a national security issue, so when we talk about preventing terrorist attacks here domestically, it becomes a federal government issue.
REHMPhilip Mudd, what do you think of the idea of privatizing the TSA security force?
MUDDI think it's worth debating, but to my mind, and maybe I have a bias as a former federal official, you have to, the grass always looks greener. I'm not sure it will be. For example, there are questions about introducing higher technology. Any private firm, in my judgment, is going to look at a contract and say, if you want us to execute this mission properly, we have to charge you more to put higher technology in, especially as terrorists improve their capabilities. Earlier in the show, we were talking about understaffing at airports across the country.
MUDDIf you're competing for a contract in the private sector to accomplish this mission, I think the first thing you say is we have to staff properly if you want, by the way, to meet the standard TSA has set, which is no accidents in airways. We keep talking about throughput. I'd also counterbalance that by saying TSA's been successful. So, I think the first debate should be how do we improve technology, do we think about budgeting more people? Do we think about changing the way lines are managed before we say, do we want to outsource this to the private sector?
MUDDAnd we realize, for example, in five years, it's much more expensive than TSA. I'm not sure that's true, but be careful what you wish for.
WOLFYeah, I think the idea of privatizing airports for the security function, it appeals to a lot of folks, so I agree that the debate is worth having. Is it easier to hire screeners, fire screeners, move them around, pay them part-time, full-time, these are all things that Kansas City, San Francisco and a variety of other airports that are privatized right now like they enjoy that flexibility. And there are limitations when you get into the federal model of how do you remove screeners?
WOLFWhat can you pay them? And so, it becomes an issue of flexibility. But I agree, I mean TSA, when we talk about privatize in airports or privatizing the screening function, I think a lot of people say, well, we're not going to have TSA and that's not really the case. TSA would still be very much involved. They would be setting the standard, setting how do you screen people? But the actual boots on the ground, the individuals in the airports, that would be a private firm. And again, this model is utilized in Canada, and almost every airport in Europe.
MCCARTNEYYou know, Diane, we talked earlier about full-time screeners verses part-time screeners and one of the things that people talk about the benefits of a privatized screening force is you actually can have part-time screeners. This is a, you know, the flow through -- flow traffic through in airports varies by hour, and you do have a lot more flexibility if you can bring part-time people in for the morning crunch, part-time people for the evening crunch. And have much -- have schedules that are tailored much more to the flow of passengers than a completely full-time work force where you have people standing around doing nothing.
REHMAll right, to Hank in Houston, Texas. You're on the air.
HANKYes, hi. Thank you for taking my call.
HANKJust to follow up on what you guys just said, you know, after September 11th, there was a big critique about privatization, that they were paying low wages to these screeners in Boston airport. And now, some of the things you hear on the news is about the fact that some of these part-time employees are also making low, low, or minimum wage. So, has there ever been, you know, have you guys ever entertained, like, you know, transferring this from the federal government to the local police departments and the airports? Where you can bring on professional law enforcement, you know, as part of the security of the airport, who screen? And this way, it alleviates the dependence on federal entity.
WOLFWell yeah, that's a -- that's a privatized model.
WOLFSo the TSA does have a program in place, the Screening Partnership Program, where outside entities, whether they're a private firm, or in this case, a local police department, if they choose to do so, can apply in conjunction with a particular airport to privatize that. Now, it's not incumbent, the way the law is written and the way that TSA operates, it's not incumbent on TSA to identify those individuals or those organizations and try to privatize airports.
WOLFIt's sort of the other way around. Those organizations have to opt in, make themselves identified, identifiable to TSA and go through a process. So, whether that's an individual private company or a law enforcement agency that has additional resources, which is interesting, can certainly apply to do that.
REHMScott, I realize people have been complaining about these long lines for -- certainly since January. But we have seen no incidents in this country in quite a long time, so maybe TSA is doing its job.
MCCARTNEYIt -- well, I think, I think there -- that perception has grown a bit. People still have plenty of frustrations with TSA. Some of the polls show there is more feeling that they are getting better at their job or doing a better job. That said, I think everyone agrees that waiting two hours for that security screening...
REHMAnd missing a flight.
MCCARTNEY...is not acceptable.
MCCARTNEYAnd really, waiting an hour, really, is not acceptable. There's a difference between doing the job and having enough resources there to handle the crowds of people. And we got to find a better way to handle the crowds of people.
REHMAnd you see the better way as moving to a privatized force?
WOLFWell, not necessarily. I think we certainly need to look at it. I think in a -- I mean, that's more of a long term decision and debate that we need to have.
REHMBut right now...
WOLFI think here in the short term, TSA's talking about increased training, increased screeners, overtime pay, things like that. I think that's good. The technology is the other part. You've got three lanes in Atlanta that are going live, innovation lanes that TSA's trying out new technology.
REHM...what are innovation lanes?
WOLFThey're new technology, so it's an automatic bin return system. So the bins that you utilize before you go through the X-ray machine are being circulated by manual TSA screeners. This would be an automated process. A conveyer belt that pulls bags out that alarm. These are things that TSA has been looking at for years, three, four, five years back. So, the question of managing the agency properly, the effectiveness of the agency really comes into question, these things should have been in place a long time ago.
REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Let's go now to Steven in Bristol, Tennessee. You're on the air.
STEVENGood morning, Diane.
STEVENYou are a national treasure and I miss you when you are away.
STEVENI was just, this last week, I flew in and out of Boston International, from flying from down here, and I don't believe outsourcing is going to make a difference, I don't think that replacing one group of people with another is going to make a -- is going to do it. There was an abundance of checkers at -- during the long line. It moved quickly while I was there. And I think the issue is the equipment it took, or takes, to scan the person, scan me and my bags, takes up amount of space.
STEVENAnd if we had more of those, you could have more people going through at the same time. But I don't think the airports were designed, in the past, to allow, you know, what we have today, the security needs we have today. And you need, then, more employees. So I think it's -- there's so many layers of this that I think it's a tough issue and people want to blame people. I think they did a great job there, and Americans are just impatient. And they want what they want regardless of the impact.
STEVENAnd I think people need to have understanding that if we're going to have incredibly, just focused and thorough security checks, it is going to take time. And...
MUDDYeah, just quickly, you know, as a former government guy, hearing somebody say, you've got to do more with less makes me roll my eyes. With less, that is less money, you're going to get less. A couple of questions. If you want lines to move more quickly, technology costs more money, especially as it keeps up with adjustments in how Al Qaeda and ISIS are designing more and more advanced devices. If you want more people, that's going to cost more money. The last thing I'd say, I thought there was a comment about the privatization issue a couple of minutes ago that I thought was critical.
MUDDLearning from the private sector and giving TSA flexibility on how it deals with personnel I think is really important. For example, it was impossible for me to hire and fire people quickly at CIA. Impossible. It was also difficult to manage this issue of full-time and part-time. So, creating an environment where Congress gives TSA the flexibility to answer some of the personnel questions with more of a private sector kind of model on personnel, I think makes a lot of sense.
REHMOne last question for you, Chad. You've talked about other airports in other parts of the world. How good a job are they doing?
WOLFWell, I think that's certainly a question. I think folks, right now, after 9/11, really do look at the United States and TSA as the gold standard for aviation security. And a large part of that is just the amount of resources and money that we've pumped into it. I mean, we have to remember, TSA has an annual budget over seven billion dollars. That's with a "b." And so, there are a lot of resources going to aviation security here in the US and a big reason for that is we have over 450 airports. When you look at smaller countries like, you know, a lot of people say we should be imitating the Israeli model.
WOLFThey have one airport. They have the Ben Gurion Airport that they have to protect. And so they can stop every individual. They can question every individual at that airport. It's not realistic for us to do that here in the US and so, just by the very nature of our system, we have to design, design it a little differently.
REHMChad Wolf, Philip Mudd, Scott McCartney. Wonderful conversation. Thank you all so much. And thanks all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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