Homeland Security and the TSA Open Up in a Blogger Roundtable

Government Regulation, Safety/Security

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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10 comments on “Homeland Security and the TSA Open Up in a Blogger Roundtable

  1. Just returned from a trip to Europe. Passed through four German security checks. None forced me to take off my shoes, even for flights returning to the US.

    Note: multiple times now I have forgotten to take my ziplock bag of watery goodies out of my carry-on. It was never found.

  2. Interesting reading – Thanks for posting this.

    With respect to “GA,” it’s no secret the alphabet organizations are 100% against it, and the reason (partially) has to do with the fact that “GA” is not defined in any federal or state regulation. So most people figure anything that isn’t commercial (Part 121) is therefore “GA.” That would include private (Part 91) and for hire (Part 135) and training, experimental, exhibition and so on. It would also open up 5,000 new airports to inspection and monitoring. For Hawley to insist this is a small price to pay demonstrates a certain level of ignorance on his part. It’s really a huge cost distributed over a very small base.

    Further, his assumption that 12,500 excludes the bulk of the traffic is also pretty absurd. Many exhibition and experimental aircraft fall into that higher weight category. Say good-bye to your local airshows and much benefit flying such as Angel Flight and the like.

    The unique thing about “GA” is that passengers are known to the pilot/operator. I’m not going to knowingly invite a nuclear bomb on my aircraft – Yes, someone could steal or commandeer my aircraft but there are already rules/regulations/restrictions that come into play. Best to enforce them rather than adding another burden on “GA.”

  3. The probelm I had recently with the family/liquid screening secutiy line in Denver (on Dec.1, no less) was that as the normal lines backed up, those who did not have children or those who did not have liquids that needed to be checked starting using the family lines since they looked shorter. (They actually WERE shorter…but that doesn’t mean faster).

    When I was in line loading the many plastic bins filled with shoes, jackets, bottles, and laptops along with car seats and a stroller through the scanner, the single lady behind me inquired “Can I go ahead of you?” If I had not been actively shoving things through the scanner, keeping all my stuff together (and had there a space to send her stuff through), all while keeping an eye on my son, of course I would have said yes. However, I said, “This is the family line,” in a way that implied that this line probably wouldn’t run as fast as the normal lines. She said she didn’t see the sign. And that was our conversation.

    The family lines work as long as it is being used as intended. Even with my experience, I’m glad that there was a family line that took off some of the pressure.

  4. The family lines are a complete joke. No one pays attention to them, and the “black diamond” lanes are seldom open. It sounded like a good idea, but its not really working. Plus the infrequent traveler with all the tons of liquids and gels in their bags get in the black diamond lane and just delay things anyway. Again, its a very good thing that Richard Reid did not try to smuggle explosive in a body cavity or we would all be bending over for TSA (worse than we are now).

  5. One thing that a government security clearance is that a private background check isn’t is a closed loop – actions that cause a security clearance to be revoked or put on hold temporarily are quickly reported to those who keep track of security clearances (and one would assume in this case, reported to the TSA.) I’m not aware of any private background checks that are able to keep track of such information as quickly as the government does.

  6. A good friend of mine frequently flies to Israel on business. From what he’s told me, airline security is a joke, except in Israel. It takes additional time, but for a long haul flight what’s arriving another hour early? I’d gladly do that in exchange for a much better feeling of confidence, something I don’t have when going through American TSA or even European security.

    Unfortunately I think commerical aircraft, especially large widebody planes will remain high profile targets. Thus, I’m all for increased security – if it works. The El Al model if you will.

  7. El-Al security makes extensive use of profiling. This is an effective strategy for that airline, where the profile of threats is fairly well-defined, and it is politically acceptable and (probably) legal in Israel. For U.S. and E.U. carriers profiling is politically unacceptable, there are questions about its legality, and its effectiveness may be lower due to the nature of the threats. So copying the Israeli model is not necessarily the way to go.

  8. It would be nice if Kip actually cared about whether something worked or not — then we wouldn’t be bothering with the liquid ban, which does nothing but line the pockets of HMS Host.

    The free pass on security for TS-cleared people was proposed a few years ago; the problem would be that you’re actually giving a free pass to people who have some (unspecified) proof of clearance. Making those two groups of people equal would be more trouble than it’s worth.

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