Tuesday, October 21, 2008

TSA’s Take on the Atlantic Article

Bruce Schneier and others have raised a number of good issues about TSA’s role in aviation security but veer off course when our work is described as ‘security theater.’ Some examples from a recent article in the Atlantic magazine are worth examining and I would put them in three categories as they represent three different layers of security: 1) items carried through checkpoints on the body; 2) watch-lists and boarding passes; and 3) behavior detection. The comments about TSA not hassling the reporter for carrying a Hezbollah flag or AQ T-shirt are more in the entertainment category along with the thought of splashing water on your face to simulate sweating as a demonstration that behavior detection doesn’t work.

Items carried on the person, be they a ‘beer belly’ or concealed objects in very private areas, are why we are buying over 100 whole body imagers in upcoming months and will deploy more over time. In the meantime, we use hand-held devices that detect hydrogen peroxide and other explosives compounds as well as targeted pat-downs that require private screening.

Watch-lists and identity checks are important and effective security measures. We identify dozens of terrorist-related individuals a week and stop No-Flys regularly with our watch-list process. Dozens more people with security concerns are identified through finding altered or forged documents, including boarding passes. Using stolen credit cards and false documents as a way to get around watch-lists makes the point that forcing terrorists to use increasingly risky tactics has its own security value. Boarding pass scanners and encryption are being tested in eight airports now and more will be coming.

Behavior detection works and we have 2,000 trained officers at airports today. They alert us to people who may pose a threat but who may also have items that could elude other layers of physical security.

The bigger point is that there are vulnerabilities everywhere and we use multiple layers of different security measures to protect us all from instances where one vulnerability can be exploited. The standard for TSA is not perfection, but material reduction of risk.

Clever terrorists can use innovative ways to exploit vulnerabilities. But don’t forget that most bombers are not, in fact, clever. Living bomb-makers are usually clever, but the person agreeing to carry it may not be super smart. Even if “all” we do is stop dumb terrorists, we are reducing risk.

Stopping the ‘James Bond’ terrorist is truly a team effort and I whole-heartedly agree that the best way to stop those attacks is with intelligence and law enforcement working together. Anyone who knows would tell you that TSA is, in fact, an intelligence-driven operation, working daily with our colleagues throughout the counter-terrorism community in that common effort.

Kip Hawley