TSA Mission: Impossible? Insight From Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley

A former TSA administrator says two major changes would create better -- and less frustrating -- airport security.
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As we head into a holiday weekend in which millions of travelers are expected to take to the skies across the U.S., it's hard to fathom the task at hand for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA): keep travelers safe without causing long, annoying lines and bringing holiday travel to a grinding halt.

This week, former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley sat down for a podcast interview with Chris Dorobek to discuss what TSA has done right and wrong over the past 10 years and what it can do to improve security in the future.

Despite the negative press it receives, Hawley argues that TSA deserves credit for stopping real plots during its 10-year existence, but that "unless it changes quite dramatically, we will be paying too much and getting too little."

What's the problem with TSA? As Hawley puts it, the agency "is caught between all the various constituencies and does not really have the means or opportunity to reallocate its security resources -- in essence pulling out things that they've done before effectively but are no longer useful." He cites two major changes that TSA needs to make immediately:

First, TSA should simplify the checkpoints by removing things like sharp objects from the prohibited items list and finding a way to safely end the liquids restriction. Second, it should move towards a more networked security model. But what would a networked model look like? Airline employees, airport employees, passengers, FAA and TSA are really all parts of a single security network, so a more effective model would be one that "connects all of them rather than beefing up one particular aspect" (i.e. checkpoints).

When Hawley initially volunteered to help the Department of Transportation to stand up TSA following 9/11, the group he led envisioned such a networked design, where "the checkpoint would not be the be all and end all. It would be part of the process, but a much more fluid part of the process." While TSA quickly fielded the checkpoint, Hawley says the second stage of this network vision simply never came into being.

At a time when budgets are being slashed, Hawley believes complexity theory offers solutions for managing risk. He says it provides tools to "control the whole network and avoid catastrophic loss." For instance, he says deploying K-9 teams in unpredictable patterns beats spending tens of millions of dollars on technology systems that examine where packages come from. Why? "It's a low cost thing that you can't predict, you can't guard against, and it just kind of freezes the enemy so they don't know what's going to happen next."

Given the chance, what would Hawley tell today's screeners? Their mission is just as important as ever. To the agency's political leadership, he would offer a more direct message: "Have guts and get going." In other words, don't be paralyzed by a fear of confronting politically hot issues.

For his own part, Hawley wishes he had been more proactive about removing items from the prohibited item list. He urges current leaders to be bold; if mistakes are made along the way, simply admit them and lay out a solution.

"Spin is dead," Hawley argues. What's most important for leaders today is to be transparent and credible with the public.