Friday, February 29, 2008

The Truth Behind the Title: Behavior Detection Officer

Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Usually it’s just nerves or a good dose of electromagnetic energy, but if you’re traveling through a TSA checkpoint, chances are there are several sets of eyes on you. What are they looking at? Is your hair messed up? Looking flustered after problems at the ticket counter? Have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe? No. You’re being watched by Behavior Detection Officers, or BDOs in government acronym-speak.

The program was designed by Paul Ekman (PhD), a psychology professor at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco. He’s been studying behavioral analysis for the past 40 years and has taught the TSA, Customs and Border Protection, CIA, FBI and other federal agencies to watch for suspicious facial expressions of tension, fear or deception. He has even taught animators at Disney-Pixar to create convincing faces for film characters. After passing along his skills to US Customs, their “hit rate” for finding drugs during passenger searches rose to 22.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 1998.

Behavior analysis is based on the fear of being discovered. People who are trying to get away with something display signs of stress through involuntary physical and physiological behaviors. Whether someone’s trying to sneak through that excellent stone ground mustard they bought on vacation, a knife, or a bomb, behavior detection officers like me are trained to spot certain suspicious behaviors out of the crowd. Once we make our determination, we refer these passengers for additional screening or directly to law enforcement.

Just recently at the Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport, (CVG) two of my fellow BDOs spotted behaviors on a passenger and conducted secondary screening. They were unaware at the time the individual was an undercover “passenger” involved in covert testing. The concealed item was an unassembled weapon in a carry-on bag. The BDOs caught this right away, and when the testing was over, it was revealed that the passenger also had plastic explosive simulants in the cups of her bra. This was an excellent catch, and proof the behavior detection program works. If this were the real thing, we would have caught it.

Between July 1, 2007 and February 7, 2008, 514 people were arrested after being referred for additional screening or directly to law enforcement officers by behavior detection officers. The arrests include unlawfully carrying concealed firearms or other weapons, possession of fraudulent documents, transporting undeclared currency, possessing illegal drugs, immigration law violations, and outstanding warrants.

Some will say that it shouldn’t be TSA’s job to look for drugs, or money - our job is airport security. But when we spot someone behaving suspiciously, we don’t know what they have; all we know is they’re behaving in a way that says they might pose a threat. In many cases, we find things that might have otherwise gotten through security (money, drugs) and that’s a good sign because it could just as easily been plastic or liquid explosives. The behaviors these drug and currency smugglers exhibit are the same behaviors we expect a terrorist to exhibit.

At a time when almost anything can be made into a weapon, it’s important to focus on the people with intent to do harm, not just on the items they might use. 

Bob Burns
TSA Social Media Team

Gripes & Grins, Part 3

Have more TSA experiences that you want to share? This is the blog post to share your TSA experiences -- both the good or the bad. (Click here to see Part 2 and Part 1).

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Alien Flight School Program: "9/11 Redux?"

Some of you may have seen a piece on ABC's World News Tonight last night about foreign student pilots training in the U.S. and alleged holes in the system that allow these individuals to take flying lessons without being checked. The memory of 9/11 was evoked and the name Mohammed Atta even made it into the piece.

Words like "TSA's enforcement is basically nonexistent," "Flight schools want the money to teach ‘em…then they just slip through the cracks," and "What happened in 9/11 (sic) we don't want to happen again…so something has to be done." were all uttered by a former FAA inspector Bill McNease in the piece.

Well, something has been done, is being done and will continue to be done. Here are the real facts behind the headlines:
  • Former safety expert McNease estimated that about 8,000 foreigners with FAA certificates were not initially checked under the Alien Flight School Program. After conducting an analysis the actual number is 857, not the estimated 8,000. These 857 individuals held certificates prior to 9/11. In 2006, all 857 were checked and not a single person posed a threat to national security.
  • Today, TSA checks EVERY foreign national that applies for flight training in this country or at FAA-certified facilities anywhere in the world. Flight schools are required to submit this application to TSA before training begins and our sister agency, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement checks individuals in the make sure these students are here legally and properly.
  • In addition to ICE's enforcement of immigration law, TSA inspectors have conducted 8,000 regulatory compliance inspections since 2005 to make sure flight schools, aren't "...gonna teach them how to fly and get their ratings and then they slip through the cracks." as the former safety inspector said.

In addition to all this checking of student pilots, we also know of the threat of already certified individuals. To address that threat we:
  • Check 800,000 people with active FAA pilot certificates against terror watch lists every single day of the year. That way if an individual is deemed to pose a threat to aviation by a law enforcement or intelligence organization, they will not be allowed to fly into, out of or over the U.S.
  • Check all master crew lists (that's cockpit crew, pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer) against terror watch lists to make sure the people flying commercial airliners don't pose a threat.

So, while thoughts of Atta flying around Florida pre-9/11 and former experts saying it's still happening are great for ratings, the TSA and our DHS partners are actively working to make sure that foreign flight students are getting the attention they deserve from us.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Welcome to the Delete-O-Meter

In the spirit of transparency, we proudly introduce the (drum roll please...) Delete-O-Meter.

This new, permanent feature of the TSA blog will update on a monthly basis the number of posts we have deleted during moderation

While we’re on the subject of deleted posts, it’s important to know why we do delete some posts. It all breaks down to the following reasons:
  • Spam - It wasn't bad when the blog first rolled out, but now we get nearly 100 spam comments a day at times.
  • Personal attacks (on both officers and passengers)
  • Profanity (and I thought some sailors knew how to curse)
  • Long embedded url strings (only because it messes up the format of the blog)
  • Threats (enough said on this one)
  • Duplicate posts (hitting submit 12 times won't make the comment appear any faster)
  • Off-topic comments
  • Sensitive information (TSA folks explaining exact procedures that could aid someone wishing to do us harm)
Other than that, all's fair in love and blogging.

Blogger Bob
TSA Blog Team

Monday, February 25, 2008

Zip Lane

Hi! I’ve just come back from Burbank where the TSA has been piloting a few suggestions posted by bloggers such as you.

We’ve tested the "Zip Lane" ("If all your carry-ons fit under the seat in front of you, Zip On Through!"). And you know what? It was a rousing success! Not only did lines move quicker but the mood changed: Transportation Security Officers noted that Zip Lane passengers smiled more. :)

Zip Lane is now a permanent feature of the Burbank security checkpoint.

How do I qualify as a Zip Lane Passenger?
  • Travel from Burbank between either 06:00-08:00h or 16:00-18:00h.
  • Make sure all your carry-on luggage fits beneath the seat in front of you. If you have larger luggage, consider checking it.
  • That’s it!

How do I know which lane is the Zip Lane?
  • Look for posted signs.
  • Ask any Transportation Security Officer.

What if I’m not traveling from Burbank?
  • We hope to be bringing Zip Lanes to other airports soon.

Please keep in mind that the lane is monitored, so don’t waste your time trying to sneak into the Zip Lane with an elephant. (Stuffed elephants that fit under the seat in front of you are ok.)

If you’re looking to zip through security, check out the Zip Lane at Burbank, open to passengers with small luggage traveling between 06:00-08:00h and 16:00-18:00h.

Try it out, tell us what you think, and keep sending in your great ideas!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Saturday Morning Strange But True...

Saturday morning, a Transportation Security Officer working the x-ray machine saw two razor blades in what appeared to be a book in someone's carry-on bag. During the bag check, the razor blades were found inside the pages of a Bible, and bag belonged to... a priest. Can't make this stuff up.

My job at TSA involves collecting, analyzing and sharing information. This includes regularly checking a TSA site run by our Transportation Security Operations Center that provides real-time reports on incidents that happen around the country. These reports include: weapons found at checkpoints, people behaving badly on planes, terminal evacuations, suspected IEDs, planes that lose contact with air traffic control and other incidents.

Photo of a gun found in a carry-on bagOn any given day, there are dozens of reports sent in from airports ranging from routine to bizarre to truly scary. On Friday, we posted a story on our website about five incidents reported into the operations center that morning before 9:00 a.m. EST, including three guns (two loaded) and two knives found in carry-on bags. All of the people who got caught with guns said they didn't know the gun was in their bag, but the man with the knives said he knew he couldn't take them on the plane, but really wanted to anyway. He was arrested.

From time to time, I'll be posting stories about some of the things in the incident reports that catch my eye and might be of interest to you. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

And Now, a Word from Our Lawyers…

Since there are no lawyers on the blog team, they asked me to weigh in on some comments that have come into the blog on legal and constitutional issues. I'm the Chief Counsel at TSA, Francine Kerner, and I hope I can provide some useful information to those interested in the legal aspects of the screening process.

In regard to comments questioning the constitutionality of TSA's airport security screening procedures, the courts have addressed the issue and disagree with the notion that our procedures are unconstitutional. TSA takes the rights of the traveling public very seriously, and in implementing security screening measures, carefully weighs the intrusiveness of those measures against the need to prevent terrorist attacks involving aircraft. Balancing the same considerations, the courts have long approved searches of airline passengers and their bags for weapons and explosives as constitutionally permissible under what is now commonly referred to as the "administrative search" or "special needs" exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. See, for example, United States v. Edwards, 498 F.2d 496 (2d Cir. 1974). More recently, the courts have ruled that TSA procedures involving identification checks and passenger screening satisfy the requirements of the Fourth Amendment and properly respect the public's qualified right to travel.

See, for example, United States v. Aukai, 497 F.3d 955 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc); Gilmore v. Gonzales, 435 F.3d 1125 (9th Cir. 2006), cert. denied, 127 S. Ct. 929 (2007); United States v. Hartwell, 436 F.3d 174 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 127 S. Ct. 111 (2006).

I see that at least one person was troubled by the fact that TSA's screening of airline passengers sometimes yields evidence of crimes not directly related to aviation security. Our responsibility and focus in the airport screening process is to prevent a terrorist attack involving aircraft. In the course of carrying out our mission by screening for weapons and explosives, however, we sometimes incidentally discover illegal items unrelated to transportation security. Federal law and policy require that we refer such items to law enforcement officers for appropriate action. See, for example, United States v. Marquez, 410 F.3d 612, 617 (2005).

To the commenters who have complained about receiving secondary screening despite not having alarmed the walk-through metal detector, there are several reasons why an airline passenger may receive additional screening. For example, some passengers are randomly selected for secondary screening in order to help detect dangerous items that might not alarm the metal detector. Adding this element of randomness to the process makes manipulating the system more difficult.

And finally, to address the comments that expressed concerns about screening in retaliation for voicing complaints about TSA: it is not TSA's policy to subject anyone to additional screening because of their political views or complaints about the screening process. However, threatening a security officer may trigger additional screening.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your concerns.

update by Francine on 2/27/08:

To date, we have received over 100 responses to our post regarding TSA's legal authority to conduct security screening at airports. Many of your responses raise questions about the authority of TSA personnel to request a name or other identifying information (ID) from a passenger. You also want to know why the information is requested, how the information is used after you provide it, and whether TSA is following the requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974 (Privacy Act), 5 U.S.C. § 552a, in requesting and using your personal information. Today's post will answer these questions.

In simple terms, the Privacy Act is a statute that controls the government's collection of personal information for later use. This is an important point. Merely asking a traveler to provide ID for a quick examination at the checkpoint does not trigger application of the Privacy Act as long as the agency is not making a record of the information to use in the future. In contrast, if TSA records a traveler's name or other identifying information with the intention of filing the information so that it can be retrieved at a later date by the traveler's name or ID, the agency is required to comply with the provisions of the Privacy Act.

During the screening process, TSA tries to identify individuals who may be planning to do us harm now or in the future. TSA tries to prevent potentially dangerous items from being brought into the boarding area. Finally, TSA responds to incidents that occur during the screening process. A passenger may need medical assistance, screened property may be damaged, lost or stolen, or an individual may become abusive in challenging a screening determination. Handling of these or any other matters may lead TSA personnel to request a traveler's name or other identifying information for filing in a Privacy Act system of records.

As a general matter, information filed in a TSA Privacy Act system of records may be used for a variety of security and administrative purposes. It may be used to identify individuals who require special screening procedures. It may be used to pursue a criminal prosecution or a civil enforcement action. It may be used to evaluate an injury or property claim, or to respond to a passenger complaint. TSA has listed all of the routine uses for the information it collects in the Privacy Act system of records notices published by the agency in the Federal Register. Most of the personal information collected in connection with the screening process is kept in a TSA system of records entitled DHS/TSA 001 Transportation Enforcement Records System (TSERS). See 69 FR 71828 (Dec. 10, 2004).

In some situations where TSA collects information directly from an individual, the Privacy Act requires TSA to provide a written notice to the individual setting forth its authority to gather the information and describing how the agency will use the information. One example of a TSA Privacy Act notice appears on the comment card that may be obtained at some screening checkpoints. Requesting a comment card should not result in harassment of any traveler. Additionally, TSA will accept anonymous comments either by filling out a comment card or by forwarding comments to the TSA Contact Center at

Under the Privacy Act, any individual may submit a request to TSA to obtain the information we have on file about the requestor. With rare exceptions, which are set forth in the Federal Register, we will provide the requestor with the information we have in our files.

If you wish to see a further discussion of the Privacy Act, please see our Web site, at:

Thank you for your comments and questions about the Privacy Act. We hope that you will check back on the Blog for future posts regarding legal issues.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Update on Black Diamond Pilot in Salt Lake City - and Now It's in Denver Too

Earl Morris, who heads up TSA's airport security operations in Salt Lake City, sent in this update to my original post:
"It's been about a week since we launched our "Black Diamond" pilot to improve security and efficiency at the checkpoint, and things are going well. At Terminal 1 where we are running the pilot, you'll find six self-select lanes modeled after the ski icons familiar to many in this part of the country - green for beginners, blue for intermediate and black diamond for experts. During the peak times at our airport, we have two lanes dedicated for black diamond, two for blue and two for green. Everyone gets the same level of security screening based on their needs and experience with the checkpoint process. The education process begins at the ticket counter where travelers first see the signs and they select their lane before they reach the TSA document checker who reviews their identification and boarding pass.

The Green lanes are used primarily by families, who often feel stressed in the traditional lane trying to get through with their kids, strollers and other stuff. Often these folks haven't gotten the proper level of attention they deserve. People who don't travel much and groups also select this lane. We've dedicated more resources to get people through this lane quickly without making them feel pushed. The Blue lanes are for casual travelers who understand TSA procedures to a degree but may not travel all that frequently so they take a little more time. The black diamond lanes are for expert travelers who understand the system by the nature of traveling a lot and are totally prepared for the checkpoint. The goal is to ensure that TSA provides the proper level of service with customized needs of the traveler in mind. Security is improved by improving the process, taking the pressure off in the lines, eliminating the hassle factor and calming down the passenger.

Here's what we've learned so far:

We've remained flexible in this first week, and incorporated feedback from our employees and travelers to reconfigure lanes and streamline the process. The input from our employees has been critical in making this work. As some have noted in the comments section, one of the challengers we've faced is the casual traveler who perceives themselves as an expert and goes into the Black Diamond lane. We've placed TSA employees out front to educate the passengers and help them select the lane that is right for them. These folks have been successful in helping people while keeping a smooth orderly flow at the checkpoint. They also explain the liquids policy and have baggies in hand to provide to travelers.

We're pleased with how things are going, and we plan to keep the Black Diamond program going here in Salt Lake indefinitely. Our airport and airline partners are supportive, passengers are upbeat, the process is improving and every day we are working to make it better."

Earlier this week, Denver International Airport also began a Black Diamond pilot. For two weeks, passengers can choose the family/special needs, casual traveler or expert lanes in the North Checkpoint during peak morning and evening hours. If you use these lanes, please be sure to post a comment here to let us know what you think. Here are two articles from Denver:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

What is Your Lane? Go at Your Own Pace in Salt Lake City

You may have read or heard about a new pilot program in Salt Lake City this weekend that enables passengers to go through security at their own pace.

Here's the information from the TSA website: Signage that you'll see at Salt Lake City AirportAt TSA we are piloting a variety of innovations at the checkpoint to improve security by focusing on people, technology and process.

In the process arena, TSA launched a self-select lane pilot this week in Salt Lake City, Utah. The self-select lane is aimed at enabling travelers to select a lane customized to their pace. Because the pilot is in a region of the country where skiing is a way of life, TSA modeled the lanes after well-known ski icons: green for beginners, blue for intermediate and black for expert.

In the TSA version, the green lane is for families traveling with children or people who need special assistance. These folks may not travel that often and need extra help with the procedures and assistance navigating security. The blue lane is for casual travelers who are somewhat familiar with the procedures and have multiple carry-ons. The expert, or black diamond lane is for those who know the procedures well and always arrive at the checkpoint with appropriate items removed and limited carry-on luggage. The security standard is the same no matter what lane you choose. However, efficiency is increased by allowing passengers to proceed at their own pace.

"We are enhancing security by creating a less stressful experience. This enables our officers to provide better support to the people who need it most, while others are able to navigate the checkpoint more expeditiously," said Earl Morris, TSA federal security director at Salt Lake. "Passengers will ultimately determine the success of the pilot."

TSA is also testing the black diamond concept at Denver International Airport in coming weeks. This is one of many innovations that passengers will see tested regionally in 2008. For instance in Houston, TSA is partnering with Continental Airlines to pilot a paperless boarding pass; in Memphis, security officers are using wireless whisper headsets to enhance communications between behavior detection officers and travel document checkers; and in Burbank, Calif., there is a customized lane for people with only one carry-on item. Stay tuned for more to come.

If you've experienced any of TSA's regional innovations in your travels, share your feedback at

Friday, February 15, 2008

The TSA, Our Officers, The Public and Theft

As we know and you have reported on this very blog, theft in our nations' airports is a big problem. It's an issue that has plagued the industry for decades, but now, as the relatively new kid on the block and the agency charged with opening more than 1 million checked bags every day, the finger has been pointed directly at our workforce.

And in some cases, rightfully so... Unfortunately, TSA has experienced its problems with theft. To date, we have terminated and sought prosecution for about 200 of our employees who have been accused of stealing, either from checked bags, passengers’ carry-ons or fellow employees. While 200 out of more than 110,000 employees is a minuscule percentage (less than one half of one percent) over the short life of the agency, one theft is too many when you are in the position of public trust as we are. We do not tolerate, condone, cover up or minimize theft by our officers by any stretch of the imagination and in most cases, it is fellow employees uncovering the theft and the organization pushing hard for prosecution of those that would abuse their authority.

From our perspective, we don't want thieves in our workforce and will do all we can to root them out. We rely on security cameras, two to three person integrity - with managers present, reports of theft by fellow employees and sting operations conducted unilaterally or with law enforcement partners at our nation's airports.

For instance, you may have read a news article from the Chicago Tribune about an officer stealing gift cards from baggage at O’Hare. What you didn’t read in that article is that TSA’s Office of Inspection (our version of internal affairs) actually ran down the stolen gift cards at Target and Best Buy, obtained surveillance video of the thieves redeeming the gift cards and worked with the Chicago PD to make sure they did not get away with this.

A few other examples include: TSA working with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department during a sting operation last summer which netted two airline contractors who stole the weapons of two service members on their way to the Middle East; a TSA-led investigation conducted in New Orleans about three years ago had similar success in netting a small group of thieves working for us; and two years ago, a TSA baggage screener at LAX attempted to steal a high-priced watch from Paris Hilton, then had second thoughts and put it back. In that case, a fellow employee reported the incident and the TSA convinced the city attorney of Los Angeles to prosecute. All of these TSA employees were terminated immediately.

Additionally, to prevent theft, our employees are prohibited from taking backpacks, lunchboxes or any other personal carrying item into baggage screening operation areas. Some airports time and date stamp bag screening cards and today more than half of all travelers use airports that have “in-line” baggage systems. These systems greatly limit the personal handling of bags by our officers and enable them to screen these bags remotely. In short, we have implemented many tools to protect your belongings and ensure your safety.

The question will certainly arise... don't you do background checks on your employees? The answer: YES! The problem with background checks is they check the background, they don't predict the future.

Now many of you have referenced television reports that talk about claims and claim data that seem to implicate our workforce in wide-spread thievery. A Seattle television station aired the original story that was based on data they had requested through the Freedom of Information Act. The data, several hundred pages, listed claims that had been submitted by passengers from airports around the country. In the data, there were no categories for theft or disposition because that information was not requested. The facts, that went unreported and un-requested, were that the majority of those claims were denied or canceled because they lacked sufficient grounds for us to use your tax payer dollars to reimburse passengers.

Now, after the five or ten minutes of time that we have your bag...what happens to it? Well, we estimate that between five and eight airline employees touch that same bag, many times outside of the view of passengers, sometimes in the cargo hold of aircraft.

So what can you do if you feel you have been ripped off? First and foremost, file a police report. Most airports have law enforcement in the terminals, many airports could have a police officers respond in minutes. Second, file a claim with both TSA and the airline. We analyze this data and if we see a trend at a particular airport, we are in a better position to investigate further. Third, check to make sure you have all of your belongings prior to departing the checkpoint area. Fourth, check with lost and found. Everyday we itemize, catalog and store thousands of items that passengers may think were stolen, but in fact are waiting to be claimed. Our lost and found link on our web site can be found by clicking here, Fifth, when traveling through the security checkpoint, to prevent another passenger stealing from you, put your phone or watch or wallet in your briefcase, purse or carry-on bag. That way it all stays together and won't fall out of one of those bowls we have for screening or make for easy pickings from a thief.

Also, I can't tell you how many times I have heard of passengers putting expensive jewelry or even wads of cash in their checked bags! Keep it with you.

TSA Evolution Blog Team

02.15.08, 2:10p.m.
Christopher said:

Couldn't agree more with anonymous at 12:31, "the screeners violated the public trust. That is completely unacceptable for a government employee at any level." That's what the post is all about. One case of officer theft is one too many and we're doing our level best to find, fire and aid in the prosectution of any officer that is stealing. Beyond the obvious lack of honesty and abuse of the public trust that has been mentioned, officers stealing sully the reputation of the great majority of the workforce and make their jobs much more difficult.

I'm not familiar with what a public affairs "gonk" is but I'm sure it's not a term of endearment. I was not trying to be intentionally vague when I wrote about 200. Let's agree to about 271, okay?

If you reply with a link to the Austin article, I'll track it down and get some facts and update this post later today. I've been with TSA three years and have never heard us characterize any theft as "minor" and am interested in this.

02.15.08, 3:10p.m.
Christopher said:

Great comments and questions about the locks. Hopefully this will clear up a couple issues. First, TSA is not cutting TSA recognized locks off your baggage. We have the keys and have no need to do this. In fact, it would take longer to grab bolt cutters (which we do keep for non-TSA recognized locks) and cut the lock off, pick up the pieces and replace the bolt cutters than it does to use the master keys we have.

The reality of the airport is that there are literally miles of belts with twists and turns everywhere. Belts the airlines use to get your luggage from the ticket counter to us, belts we use to move the bags through the mini-van sized explosive detection machines, belts to get the bags back to the airlines and to the areas where bags are collected for specific flights and of course belts to move the bags into the underside of the aircraft. This doesn't even include the belts at the destination airport that get bags from the plane to the carousel. The point about all these belts is that twists and turns in the belt system are notorious pinch points for bags and particularly locks. Go to any airport in America and the floor of these areas will have broken locks on them. Yes it's a design issue and it is being addressed in some of our more modern airports and systems but the plain truth about these locks is that more often than not, it's a belt that broke your lock, not a person.

As some have mentioned, these locks aren't built to withstand a serious pounding and can be broken, pulled apart, picked or otherwise disabled. These locks provide a modest amount of protection from opportunistic thieves, they will not stop someone bent on getting into a bag just like a lock on your front door would not prevent a burglar from breaking your window.

TSA Evolution Blog Team

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What It Takes to be a Transportation Security Officer

Many people at TSA are checking out our blog, from security officers on the front line to management here at TSA’s headquarters. Today, we received a post from Mo McGowan, who heads up aviation security operations at TSA:

Since there have been hundreds of comments about our Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) on this blog ranging from "they're great" to "they stink," I thought it might be interesting to take an inside look into what it takes to be an officer and what they do.

So what does it take to be hired as an officer? Applicants are tested before they’re hired, and have quite a bit of required training afterward. Applicants for “screening” jobs take a series of image interpretation tests before they are ever offered a job. (About one in 20 applicants actually becomes an officer.) Even after they’ve been on the job, TSA requires ongoing training throughout the year.

Once hired, officers:
- Participate in more than 120 hours of classroom and on-the-job training before they ever screen a person or a bag;
- Undergo a series of tests before receiving a work assignment;
- Complete even more training if they are going to screen both passengers and baggage (More than half of our officers do this); and
- Complete an annual certification process that includes more written tests, image interpretation tests, and a third party evaluation.

So training is a regular, important part of an officer’s job.

Seven times every day, every checkpoint in the U.S. is tested with ‘fake’ threats to ensure that our officers are on alert. Most of these fake items are very difficult to identify on the computer screen, and most of these items are detected. Unfortunately, we’re all most likely to hear about the few prohibited items that pass through undetected rather than the thousands of items that are identified at the checkpoint.

On a typical day in the U.S., security officers find two guns and around 2,800 knives and blades (of varying sizes) on passengers and in carry-on bags. Those are the most commonly discovered prohibited items, but it’s hard to imagine how many other potential threats are identified on a daily basis.

We at TSA don’t want anything to happen ‘on our watch.’ This means a lot to me when my family flies, or when I fly to see my grandkids. It means that officers want to be thorough even though it might be inconvenient for us sometimes. It means that they take our safety, security, and the threat seriously, and try their best to prevent and deter the individuals who wish to do us harm.

At TSA, we think about one passenger at a time, two million times a day.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Why We Do What We Do: Additional Screening for People with Hip Replacements

We've received many comments and questions from people who have had hip replacements and other metal implanted in their bodies for medical reasons. Many want to be able to present a letter from their doctor, some type of medical card, or even an x-ray to confirm that it's for an authentic medical reason that they're alarming the metal detector.

We understand that this is an inconvenience to travelers who repeatedly have to go through additional security measures because of a medical condition, but we just can't accept a letter, a card or an x-ray. I’ll explain some of the reasons.

This is a true story: a passenger told a security officer that he knew he was going to set the metal detector off because he had a pin in his hip. He hoped the officer would give him a pass on additional screening. Instead, the security officer followed TSA guidelines patted down the passenger. Guess what? He found a gun strapped to the passenger’s leg. So, if the security officer had just taken his word for it, a gun would have gotten on the plane—and maybe even been in the seat next to you. Things like this happen all the time, more than you would think.

We know those of you with genuine medical conditions are not the problem. And we realize the additional screening makes your checkpoint experience a frustrating one. But if a passenger alarms the metal detector, our security officers must resolve the alarm or the passenger can't get on the plane. We want to be thorough and protect the safety of everyone. No officer wants to be the one to let a gun, knife or bomb get through to an airplane.

If terrorists (or people who just HAVE to take their gun or knife with them on the flight) thought they could get by with a letter from a doctor or medical ID card, they'd quickly find out a way to make fake ones. How can we tell the difference in just a few seconds in a busy checkpoint line? It may make it a bit easier for you—but it makes it way too easy for them. Unfortunately, the pat down is currently the only way to resolve the situation.

Like you, we’re not satisfied with this result either. So, we’ve been busy exploring less invasive technology solutions that will allow officers to distinguish passengers with metallic medical implants from those trying to sneak weapons through the checkpoint. Last year, we began field testing several different types of whole body imagers in Phoenix, Arizona. Some passengers who were required to undergo additional screening were given the option of going through a portal instead of a pat-down. We've gotten great feedback from passengers on the technology, so we plan to continue testing the technology in other airports like JFK in New York, LAX in California, and others later this Spring. If you happen to go through portal in Phoenix or other airports, write back and let us know what you think.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Few Thoughts on Consistency and Where We're Kip Hawley

Thanks for participating in the Evolution of Security blog. In the coming weeks we will ask for your opinions about some issues we have now in discussion -- balancing intrusions into personal space (pat-downs, imaging) with better detection, devoting dedicated lanes to 'speedsters' frequent flyers and how to manage who goes to that lane -- are two examples. We will also continue to go where you take us with the issues you raise. I would like to address one of those issues now: 'why do I get different results at different airports?'

There are two main issues: a) process consistency, where we want to have the same result everywhere; and, b) purposeful variation so as not to offer a static target.

Let me say up front that we have sometimes confused the issue ourselves, seemingly excusing unwanted results with 'well we do it differently on purpose' answers. While I understand the frustration of not having a completely identical process every time, I cannot say that you will ever be able to go through completely on autopilot. Here's my perspective...

Let's take process consistency first. Imagine we were a manufacturing business and that we wanted to crank out identical, high quality widgets. That's hard to do even when you use precision equipment and consistent materials. If TSA were a manufacturer, we would be processing over 700 million unique transactions a year, using over 40,000 different people, at over 400 locations. And, rather than combating maintenance woes (although we do) and the standard banes of manufacturing quality, our enemy is active, intelligent, malicious, patient, and adaptive.

Because TSA started from scratch, we used very defined 'standard operating procedures' in order to get the new organization up and running. Over time, that detailed process control started to work against us. It had the effect of making the job checklist-oriented. ('If I follow the SOP, then I am doing my job.') The tighter we squeezed to demand tighter adherence to the SOP, the more we squeezed individual initiative and thinking out of it.

While we had great people as TSO's, we were putting them in situations where they had to do things 'because it's SOP' whether or not it made sense. It was not helpful for public credibility or for keeping our people sharp.

Since nobody would care that we followed the SOP precisely if there was a successful attack, and since our enemy can observe our SOP and plan ways to beat it -- we needed something more.

This is the purposeful variation part. The idea is to have a menu of different security measures that TSOs add randomly to the standard process.

Everybody goes through the magnetometer and puts carry-ons through the x-ray and if there is an alarm, it is resolved. However, given the limits of technology and simple human fallibility, vulnerabilities inevitably exist. We are covering those vulnerabilities by adding, truly at random, additional measures. For example, in the last couple of months, I have had two versions of a quick pat-down. My computer was swabbed for an explosives check, as were my shoes even though I didn't alarm going through (Yes, I go through security just like everyone else). We also have new handheld liquid and solid explosives detection devices deployed as well as a variety of other measures. You may, and should, see what I mean in an upcoming trip.

I should also add that we have recently added other layers of security to address the same vulnerabilities that I have been discussing -- behavior detection, document checking, K-9 teams, undercover air marshals, etc.

So, our theory of how to achieve process consistency from a quality control perspective is to train well and set outcome goals that encourage individual initiative and judgment. We think that for a distributed workforce that sees endless variety in passenger situations and faces an adaptive enemy -- that is the way to go. This means that, yes, you will see some differences trip to trip on some judgment things that are not on purpose. That is the price for a thinking, switched-on front-line -- if you want people thinking, then you have to let them make decisions based on their training and experience.

You will also see some different measures applied trip to trip that are purposeful, put there to prevent someone from exploiting a vulnerability.

Thanks for working with us, Kip

Friday, February 8, 2008


We have received several questions, comments and links to other blogs about a Washington Post article on confiscating laptops and other electronic devices at airports.

» Click Here to read the Washington Post Article.

As the article correctly states, this is a customs issue and not one TSA is involved in.

TSA does not and will not confiscate laptops or other electronic devices at our checkpoints. Our officers’ are solely focused on the safety of the traveling public and are looking for explosives and other prohibited items. Should one of our officers find something suspicious, we will immediately contact local law enforcement and potentially the local bomb squad. We will not ask for any password, access to any files or take the laptop from you for longer than it takes to determine if it contains a threat.

Should anyone at a TSA checkpoint attempt to confiscate your laptop or gain your passwords or other information, please ask to see a supervisor or screening manager immediately.

TSA Evolution Blog Team

2/14/08 8:41 a.m.

Nico Said:

The post referencing LAX Terminal 6 requiring all passengers remove all electronic items piqued our interest, so we have done some digging. First thing this morning we checked with our Lead TSO at Terminal 6 and we spoke with our Assistant Federal Security Director for Screening, who both refuted the posting and stated, "passengers are not required to remove all electronics, in fact, we are requesting they put all small electronic items in their carry-on bags to help keep them together." Additionally, the Screening Manager at LAX who is responsible for the operations in both Terminals 5 and 6, is in the process of conducting an employee by employee inquiry to determine if anyone has required this of passengers in the last couple of days. So far, there have been negative findings. Is it possible that one passenger had to remove all electronics after an initial pass through the X-ray because we had trouble identifying possible threat items? Yes. But again, all passengers are not required to remove all electronics.

Blog Team Member

Why We Screen Veterans and Active Members of the Military

I’ve noticed many comments from concerned passengers as to why we screen soldiers and veterans at our checkpoints. Some folks find this shameful while others (including most soldiers and vets) realize it’s a necessity.

Let me preface this post by saying I have the utmost respect for our men and women in uniform. My Grandfather who I never met was a Combat Medic in an 82nd Airborne Glider Battalion during WWII. He lost his life during a practice rescue mission while serving in Alaska in 1949. I grew up hearing stories about his military career, which helped foster my fascination and respect for the military. My father was in the National Guard for 10 years. I was raised to respect soldiers and spent many a Sunday morning on the couch with Dad watching war documentaries and John Wayne movies. I eventually joined the Army myself and became a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Decontamination Specialist with the 3rd Armored Division. I served in Desert Storm and spent 3 years in the Army before being honorably discharged and starting college. While in the Army, I met some of the best people I’ll ever meet. Hardworking, loyal, trustworthy, respectable… It is natural to see one of our soldiers in uniform and instantly put them up on a pedestal. We should… they deserve respect for their service to our country. They sacrifice much of their freedom to protect ours. However, let me caution you that simply because somebody wears a uniform, it does not warrant blind trust.

Did you know that we’ve had soldiers bring grenades with them to the airport? Chances are there was no ill intent, but a grenade on a plane is a grenade on a plane. It just shouldn’t be there. (Kind of like snakes on a plane) We’ve also caught passengers impersonating soldiers thinking they would be able to bypass the screening process. Go to any Army/Navy store in America and for less than $50 dollars you too can look just like an active duty soldier, sailor, airman or marine.

The fact that any soldier serves is honorable, but soldiers and veterans are just as capable of committing unspeakable acts as any other human being. In Kuwait in 2003, US Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar killed two 101st Airborne officers and wounded 14 when he lobbed two grenades into a command tent. John Allen Muhammad (The DC Beltway Sniper) was a Sergeant in the Army and served for 16 years. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols (Oklahoma City Bombing) were both Army Veterans. My roommate of 2 years in the Army stole weapons from an armory and died in a shootout with police after killing two officers. My first year on the job with the TSA, a young man serving in the U.S. Air Force told me he was going to blow up the plane he was about to depart on. These are just a few examples of many. Would we need military prisons if all of our soldiers were the spotless squeaky-clean individuals we believe them to be?

The TSA gives Soldiers special accomodations , but just like any other passenger, if they alarm the walk through metal detector, or have something in their bag we need to look at, they will undergo secondary screening. We owe that to the safety of all passengers to resolve any alarm we receive. In fact, the same thing happens to a TSA employee when they are traveling. If they alarm, they get screened.

Lastly, I just want to touch on the amount of respect TSA employees have for our members of the Armed Forces both current and veterans. Many in our ranks are prior military. Some of us served for a couple of years and others retired with 20 plus years under their belts. Some during times of peace and others during war. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a TSO stop to shake a service members hand and thank them for their service. Some of our employees even have family members and friends serving in Iraq or Afghanistan right now. At my airport and I’m sure many others, we have written letters and sent care packages to soldiers. In fact, some of us have adopted platoons and send items regularly. I’ve also screened many soldiers and veterans who have thanked me for screening them including a Battle of Bulge vet who limped due to frostbite from the war.

Read about the experience a Lead TSO had with a Medal of Honor Recipient this past summer.


Evolution Blog Team

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

HOORAY BLOGGERS! (Commenting Disabled)

A Win for the Blogosphere

Posters on this blog have had their first official impact on our operations. That’s right, less than one week since we began the blog and already you’re affecting security in a very positive way.

On Monday afternoon we began receiving questions about airports that were requiring ALL electronics to be removed from carry-on bags (everything, including blackberrys, iPods and even cords). This practice was also mentioned on several other blogs and left us scratching our heads.

So…we checked with our security operations team to figure out what was going on. After some calls to our airports, we learned that this exercise was set up by local TSA offices and was not part of any grand plan across the country. These practices were stopped on Monday afternoon and blackberrys, cords and iPods began to flow through checkpoints like the booze was flowing on Bourbon Street Tuesday night. (Fat Tuesday of course).

So thanks to everyone for asking about this and for giving us a chance to make it right. Our hope is that examples like this validate our forum and show the solid partnerships we can form with our customers - the traveling public - in not only increasing security but in making all of our lives just a little easier.

Thanks again and keep those comments and questions coming.

Monday, February 4, 2008

More on the Liquid Rules: Why We Do the Things We Do (Commenting Disabled)

Last week, there was a post on the ars technica blog by Jon Stokes, Senior Editor and Co-Founder, posing some questions on TSA’s liquids rules similar to other questions we’ve gotten on the blog so far. Kip Hawley wrote the following response, and we wanted to post it here for TSA blog readers to see as well.


Thanks for the question on liquids. We have lots of material on our site ( going into the liquids issue so that is available for background, including the video of it blowing up. I'll try here to break the question down into the sub-questions I hear most. I enjoy ars technica, especially that it is thoughtful and issue-oriented and I appreciate having the opportunity to address your question.

Was this a real threat? Yes, there was a very serious plot to blow up planes using liquid explosives in bombs that would have worked to bring down aircraft.

Why don't you just ban all liquids? Because our National Labs and international allies demonstrated to my satisfaction that there is, in fact, a scientific basis for allowing small amounts of liquids on as carry-on. We try to prohibit the minimum possible from a security standpoint. Also, the consequence of banning all liquids is a large increase in the number of checked bags, which creates its own issues.

Why can't multiple people bring on explosives in three-ounce containers and mix them post security? The tough one! Tough because there are parts of the reason that are truly classified but here goes... (read them all before throwing up your hands!)

  1. We are involved in risk management. The question to me is: "What do you have to do to make a successful attack so complex that an intelligent enemy would recognize that the odds of success are too low?"
  2. Because there are limits to our ability to detect every thing every time at the checkpoint, we use layers of security. For example, I and senior leaders at TSA work every day with the intelligence and law enforcement communities world-wide to get insights in how to make our security better -- frequently adding specific training and sometimes, respecting our obligations to the intell and law enforcement communities (like our remote control toys advisory), communicating directly to the public. Also, we reduce risk by a) adding behavior detection capability, K-9 teams, surge teams and document checking out front; and b) by undercover presence throughout the area behind the checkpoint, as well as better screening of the supply chain of items in the sterile area after the checkpoint.
  3. We reduce risk by deciding what we believe is necessary for a completed bomb -- the core of the 100ml (3.4 ounce) limit. Extensive testing began the morning of August 10, 2006 -- the day the liquids plot was made public -- to determine if there is a level at which any liquid brought onboard a plane represents little risk. These were tests by multiple government agencies, National Laboratories and other nations and they assisted in the 3-1-1 formulation. We announced 3-1-1 on September 26, 2006 and that allowed travelers to go on overnight trips without having to check a bag. That is the trade-off: if 3-1-1 is too complicated, you can always just check your bag.
  4. The preparation of these bombs is very much more complex than tossing together several bottles-worth of formula and lighting it up. In fact, in recent tests, a National Lab was asked to formulate a test mixture and it took several tries using the best equipment and best scientists for it to even ignite. That was with a bomb prepared in advance in a lab setting. A less skilled person attempting to put it together inside a secure area or a plane is not a good bet. You have to have significant uninterrupted time with space and other requirements that are not easily available in a secured area of an airport. It adds complexity to their preferred model and reduces our risk, having the expert make the bomb and give it to someone else to carry aboard. They are well aware of the Richard Reid factor where he could not even ignite a completed bomb. Simple is truly better for them. Also, bomb-makers are easier for us to identify than so-called clean 'mules.'
  5. The container itself adds complexity. A 100ml container limits the effect of, and even the ability of, a detonation. It also forces a more precise mix, and a lot more boost -- which makes it easier to detect from that side. Even creative ways to smuggle liquids in are less effective because, eventually, they still have to mix it right and get it into the right container, etc. There are also issues with what kind of container you use, but let's leave them to puzzle that out further...
  6. The baggie gives us two benefits: A) It serves as a visually identifiable, easy way to limit quantity. Even if they wanted to bring multiple bottles to mix, we limit the quantity of their total liquids as well (bottles "hidden" in the carry-on bag stick out). B) The baggie serves to concentrate the vapor - substances used to create liquid explosives are very volatile and emit fumes even through sealed bottles. (We have tested.) We have liquid explosives detectors that take advantage of the vapor concentration factor in the baggie. This way, we do not have to examine what's inside every bottle, regardless of what the label says.
  7. The effect of pulling out liquids and aggregating them separately allows our security officers to have a clear look at the liquids -- and, perhaps just as important, it de-clutters the carry-on bag so that we have a clearer view of that as well.
  8. With our medical exceptions, they have to talk to one of our Security Officers who can use a variety of methods to tell whether it presents a problem including test strips, and hand-held detectors that are highly effective, even with closed and sealed bottles. With the larger bottles, the other features needed to make it viable would be very apparent.

A few other points, this policy has been adopted in more than 80 countries worldwide and means that there are common rules almost everywhere you fly. The choice is a total ban or this, and we are working very hard at a technology solution that should make this better all around. Think early 2009 for that.

The challenge is to reduce risk on the things we know about (shoe bombs, liquids) while having enough other measures in place to disrupt what we don't know is coming. Any time we fixate on one thing, you have to be concerned about opening up something elsewhere. Balance, flexibility, and unpredictability are key. So is going on offense by being connected to intelligence / law enforcement and being proactive with our surge patrols, undercover activities, etc. AND getting TSA and passengers back on the same side! That last one is what we're trying to do at our checkpoint with our TSOs and online with our blog.

Whatever you think about our policies -- please recognize our Security Officers who train and test every day and will do whatever it takes to make you and your families safe when you fly. They are the best in the world and are on your side; please give them a little recognition when you see them. Thanks for the opportunity to comment,


Friday, February 1, 2008

Questions We Hear Everyday (Commenting Disabled)

Throughout the ages, there have been many unanswered questions that continue to baffle the human race. Who built Stonehenge? Is there life on other planets? Why does the TSA make me place my liquids in a clear sealable baggie?

Unfortunately, even the experts at the TSA were not able to solve all of the world's mysteries, but they were able to crack the code on a few.

For your viewing pleasure, we filmed some of our experts explaining a couple of TSA's most frequently asked questions from the flying public. We have others and will post those in the future but for today we have:
We know, we know, what about shoes? Well we're working on a video for this question and plan to update this post with that video this afternoon. In the meantime, check out our post on shoes in the link off to the right. We updated it this morning with a picture of a really funky pair of shoes we found on a guy flying from Alaska last year. We have also posted the x-ray image of a standard pair of shoes. We think it shows pretty clearly that we can actually tell if they've been altered.

You'll notice there's no mention of good old shoe bomber Richard Reid yet. That's because the current rule is not in place only because of one of the more famous residents of the Supermax in Kansas. No, it's all about intel and us knowing that terrorists are still interested in hiding explosives, detonators and other items we really don't want in the cabin of an airplane in their shoes.

Don't forget, we want your feedback but it has to be in the right place because we can't move comments around on this blog yet. Post shoe comments and questions in that link, post liquids issues and scientific research proving us wrong in the liquids page. For anyone interested in discussing screening the elderly and children, feel free to comment right here.

Finally, you'll be happy to know that Kip does not own shares in the plastic baggie business and he is fond of the elderly and small children. I'm also willing to bet you wouldn't even have to take your shoes off at his house. Enjoy...

Evolution Blog Team