Thursday, July 3, 2008

Yet Another ID Post...With Some Answers to Your Questions

The ID topic has elicited lots of emotion. Many posters feel very strongly on this topic and I respect that discussion and their positions. This is a case where taking steps for aviation security touch other, related controversies that are larger societal/political issues. To the extent that there are legal issues relating to TSA’s actions, they will be resolved elsewhere.

I would like to move on to other topics since we are not going to solve the several complex issues here and we do have lots of other security issues to discuss.

The essential point is that validating a passenger’s identity matters a great deal from a security point of view. Our intelligence, military, and law enforcement colleagues -- at great risk to themselves -- develop sensitive information about potential attacks and the people behind them. They get that information to us so that TSA can do its part and keep those people off aircraft. It is our obligation to protect passengers and crew using the best information that we can get. That is what we are doing.

We will leave this open for further discussion and then move on with our next post. But before we move on, I wanted to provide answers to some of your questions.

Q: If requiring ID is truly instrumental in keeping the flying public safe, why did it take the TSA until June of 2008 to institute that policy?

A: Building blocks.

TSA put up a national security baseline in 2002. This involved creating the organization, staffing, buying and installing equipment -- and the very familiar magnetometer/x-ray checkpoint. No-Fly and Selectee lists were established and given to airlines for them to match versus their ticketed passengers. Airlines continued the pre-9/11 practice of hiring contractors locally to check ID’s. That created a basic physical screening process at the checkpoint (TSA operated) and a basic person screening process through the airlines.

In 2006 and 2007 TSA strengthened the person screening process by adding a new layer (behavior) and improving the watchlist matching. Along with the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), TSA scrubbed the No-Fly and selectee lists and essentially cut them in half. (CIA and FBI are the major players nominating people to the Watchlists, TSC maintains a consolidated, accurate, government-wide watchlist, and TSA operationally makes sure No-Flys don’t fly.) The system is vulnerable to people evading watchlists if they use a fake identity with the airline and then show a fake ID at the checkpoint. This vulnerability was called out by many on-line posters (and noticed by us) and we took a major step last year to upgrade the ID checks by integrating the checking of ID’s with the rest of TSA’s security. That is why you now have TSA officers, with lights and loupes examining ID’s throughout the system.

The ID requirements we’re talking about here, are the next building blocks to be added. First, to require identity verification and better define the hierarchy of good ID’s -- hence the ‘gold standard.’

We know that terrorists use fake ID's to evade security scrutiny. While I recognize that there are very valid philosophical issues and debates around ID’s, for TSA, this issue is about closing vulnerabilities and stopping attacks.
There is considerable operational complexity to resolving the identity of a person without an ID real-time at the checkpoint. It is getting done now but is still clunky at times. We will get better over the coming months. In answer to the question, all of the building blocks mentioned above, needed to be in place. They are now and aviation is safer as a result

Q: What will TSA do if a majority of the states refuse to issue REAL ID cards to their respective citizens?

A: We would attempt to verify identity with other means, it would just take longer.

Q: If TSA believes that 1) checking ID increases safety to the flying public and 2) the no-fly list is there to catch terrorists, then why are the TSOs that check IDs at the airport not comparing names to those on the no-fly list?

A: Because those checks are done before the boarding pass is issued. It is done in the background by a combination of the airlines and TSA. The system is automated and close matches are resolved on a one by one basis.

Q: Since it has been claimed by TSA that the 3-1-1 rule was implemented due to the circumstances surrounding the London bomb plot, what position will TSA take if the defendants are found not-guilty?

A: I can’t comment on the U.K. legal system but “certainty” in a criminal proceeding is very carefully defined. I can tell you from the intelligence and law enforcement information developed in this case that the threat to U.S. aircraft was chilling, lethal and the clock was ticking when they were arrested. Had that plot not been discovered, there may well have been thousands of casualties. Doubt about the reality or efficacy of that threat? Zero.

Kip