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Homeland Security and the TSA Open Up in a Blogger Roundtable

I have to say that as much flack as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the TSA get, they do a pretty good job of facing it head on. Chertoff and Hawley Face BloggersCase in point . . . they held a blogger roundtable recently where DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and TSA Administrator Kip Hawley sat down and answered question from a variety of bloggers. I was actually invited to the event, but I wasn’t able to get back to DC for it. Fortunately, they published a transcript entitled, Remarks by Secretary Chertoff and TSA Adminstrator Hawley at the Aviation Security Blogger Roundtable, and there’s some interesting discussion in here.

I’d recommend reading through the transcript yourself, but there were a few things I wanted to pull out of the chat here. Of course, it’s important to remember that with a new administration coming in, all of this could change, but here is some of the thinking of the current team in place.

General Aviation and Container Shipping
Secretary Chertoff explained his belief that general aviation is a bigger security risk than container shipping. That’s why we’re seeing more focus on private flights than on 100% screening of containers.

But what interested me is in all the money and effort we’ve spent on that, which I have no quarrel with, I don’t ever hear people say, what about general aviation? And, to me, I thought the likelihood of someone putting a nuclear weapon on a plane, given that it would be a very scarce resource, is significantly greater than they would put it in a container and leave it to the, you know, vagaries of the oceangoing maritime domain and the longshoreman.

To me, this seems a bit too casual. Yes, it may make sense to focus on general aviation, because it’s low hanging fruit. There aren’t that many private flights coming in from overseas on a daily basis, so it’s probably fairly easy to isolate. But I still would have greater concern about someone putting a weapon in a container to be shipped into the country as well.

Registered Traveler and CLEAR
On the Registered Traveler program, they’re still bullish on creating an ID that would be more secure, such as a “an enhanced driver’s license, a REAL ID driver’s license, and a private card that met the FIPS standard, the appropriate level of FIPS protection, which as you know is the Federal Standard for Identification.” But, that’s not going to give people a free pass. They’ll still need to go through security.

What was interesting was Secretary Chertoff’s comments on CLEAR, and how he doesn’t see it as a security issue. In his eyes, it’s a fast pass to the front of the line, but it doesn’t (and won’t) change anything about how you’re screened once you get into the system.

To the extent that CLEAR provides an identification that meets the required standard, and I think they’re now going to put a photograph on, we are perfectly happy to accept that as an identification. To the extent that there is a desire, however, to get them around the regular magnetometer, we have not signed up to do that. To the extent there’s an argument that people should be at the head of the line or in a separate line, that’s between them and the airport. That is not a security issue.

So that makes sense, but is there the potential for some sort of reduced screening requirement for CLEAR? He says it’s not going to happen.

So you could in theory truly have a known traveler lane for example for people who actually have a security clearance. That would be a comparatively small number of people. It’s not what’s offered by a private company, so the difficulty is and I’m not going to get into specific companies, but when there’s a suggestion that you’re going through a real background check, you’re not. You’re getting essentially the same check that we run through Secure Flight, and while that’s a useful test we’re not confident it identifies the full range of people who are threats to the degree we would excuse them from going through the line.

Now if we — you could have a rule that’s for people with a TS clearance, top secret clearance, or secret clearance get through without the magnetometer, that would satisfy the security issues. There might be an objection on the part of the public that you’re privileging government people as opposed to non-government people, or members of Congress as opposed to everybody else. So that raises kind of an equitable issue. But I don’t have a security problem with that. I just think that we need to be clear, no pun intended, that the Registered Traveler program doesn’t really offer a true background check.

It seems to me that there should be something in between having top secret government security clearance and being a regular traveler. There has to be some commercially viable way to get people adequate screening to reduce (but not eliminate) security requirements. Is super cool government clearance really the only way for them to feel comfortable?

Taking Your Shoes Off
There was no mincing words when it came to the “shoe removal” requirement. They say they don’t like this anymore than we do, but they still see it as necessary until they get better technology.

And as far as technology, we should disaggregate that. If you can come up with a good shoe scanner, God bless you. We’ll buy it. We’ll use it for everybody. I don’t see a value to have a special shoe scanner for a separate type of people. I think if someone’s got the technology that stands on the merits, we ought to use it and if we can let people keep their shoes on that’s fine.

Kip Hawley was actually very blunt on this issue.

Just on that specific thing, the shoe scanner that we’re talking about does not work. The minute it is working we’ll have it, as the Secretary said, deployed very widely.

This all assumes that people hiding stuff in their shoes is still a tremendous security threat. How often has someone tried to hide a weapon in their shoe? Yes, there’s the very public case of Richard Reid, but he didn’t succeed. Then again, he was an idiot for trying to light the explosive in the passenger cabin with others all around him. I just don’t know that I believe that it’s that big of a threat, but of course, the government has a lot more information on this then they’ll ever release to us.

Family Lanes
There was also a lot of talk about how successful the “family lane” program has been from Kip Hawley’s perspective

Look, we get it. You guys have your own security concerns, that’s your stuff, but can you at least separate us out before we come to security. At least have the people who, you know, need a few more minutes not having somebody anxious behind them making you nervous and me, I’m a fast traveler. I just want to go with all the other fast travelers. So, we did that and it was amazing how well it worked.

I tend to agree that this new segregated line system is a good one despite its reliance on self-selecting. If you’re a parent and you know you’re going to need time, having a line where there aren’t people in a hurry can help. Meanwhile, if you know the drill and can get through quickly, the last thing you want is to be stuck behind someone with a few kids. So, despite my earlier criticism of the idea, I think I’ve altered my thinking a bit in that it does appear to have had some positive impact.

Overall, it looks like it was a very interesting get together. I wish I could have been there to ask questions of my own, but I’m just glad they put out the transcript.

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