The TSA should have had a good spring. It removed the hated body scanners and introduced a plan that would let security focus on big problems, not tiny knives. But it failed to manage the message properly and lost an issue it should have easily won.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s plans to loosen rules in place since 2001 appear stalled even as lawmakers, airlines and the public want changes in an approach the agency calls one-size-fits-all.
Administrator John Pistole’s decision last week to reverse himself and continue screening for pocketknives signals the agency’s difficulty in shifting to more risk-based screening from a system put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The knives decision followed an inspector general’s report questioning the effectiveness of TSA’s behavior-detection program, which tries to spot threats by observing mannerisms in airports and led to accusations of racial profiling.
“How is TSA going to be allowed to make risk-based decisions if every time they do, either Congress or special- interest groups build up enough pressure to reverse the decision?” said Jeffrey Sural, a TSA assistant administrator under President George W. Bush. “That’s a serious concern.”
Pistole has said the TSA needs to spend less effort scrutinizing people who aren’t terrorism risks. Patdowns of senior citizens and young children have been persistent themes in a series of hearings in Congress.
In announcing in March that he would end the pocketknives ban, Pistole said the TSA’s mission was to prevent a catastrophic downing of an airplane, not confiscate items at checkpoints that experts didn’t consider threatening.
Sural said that was consistent with the agency’s stated purpose during his tenure. Still, Pistole’s pronouncement didn’t sit well with airline executives, lawmakers, the agency’s screeners and air marshals, and especially flight attendants. Some reminded him that the Sept. 11 hijackers were armed with box cutters.
Opposition grew to the point that the U.S. House voted, as part of the Homeland Security Department’s budget, to block funding to end the knife ban — after Pistole had already backtracked. The intent was to prevent Pistole from changing his mind again.
“He screwed up on that one,” Republican Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and initially a supporter of Pistole’s move, said after the reversal was announced. “The flight attendants have a legitimate complaint.”
By picking an item associated with the Sept. 11 attacks, Pistole may have “picked the wrong fight,” said Jeff Price, an aviation security consultant and instructor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The agency at first consulted few outside people before making its March announcement. More extensive discussions with its Aviation Security Advisory Committee — which includes representatives of flight attendants, air marshals, airlines and consumers — came after opposition began to mount.
The TSA has tended to use the group to communicate final decisions rather than to seek input before they’re made, said Paul Hudson, a former panel member.
Pistole’s explanations “smacked of arrogance,” Hudson said.
Pistole’s background as a former FBI official gave him strong law-enforcement and anti-terrorism credentials when he came to the TSA in 2010. The TSA works with the public more directly than the FBI does, making its message critical, and the agency’s stance on knives came across as uncaring, said Sural, now a lawyer with Alston & Bird LLP in Washington.
“At the FBI, you’re out front chasing down the bad guys,” Sural said. “At TSA, you’re literally manhandling innocent people before they get on airplanes. That’s a little different interface with the government.”
The agency “strongly values the input of our partners and the traveling public, and appreciates the varying points of view shared throughout the review process,” TSA spokesman David Castelveter said in an e-mailed statement in response to written questions.
The agency will continue to expand efforts “to implement a layered, risk-based security approach to passenger screening while maximizing resources,” Castelveter said. That means focusing more on people the agency knows the least about, he said.
With changes to its prohibited-items list made politically difficult, the TSA’s efforts to lessen scrutiny of low-risk people may revolve around expanding PreCheck, its less intrusive screening process for ultra-frequent fliers and selected others who pass background checks.
PreCheck is popular with the public and Congress, said Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary for policy at the Homeland Security Department.
Since last year, the agency has been identifying groups of travelers, such as active-duty service members, who are deemed safe. It’s testing whether to employ companies such as Alclear LLC, which operates an expedited screening program called Clear at five U.S. airports, to increase PreCheck membership by conducting security checks on travelers willing to pay a fee.
Pistole has also touted a pilot program at the Indianapolis and Tampa airports, known as managed inclusion, that uses trained dogs and behavior-detection officers to divert travelers from the normal screening lines into underused PreCheck lanes.
Flight attendants are pushing for a law that will force the TSA to keep knives out of airplane cabins, said Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
“We should be able to do both,” Nelson said. “We should be able to protect people in the cabin and protect against a catastrophic failure.”
The agency recently finished removing body scanners made by OSI Systems Inc.’s Rapiscan unit after concluding they couldn’t be altered to make images less revealing, as Congress had demanded.
Whatever changes it tries in the future, the agency won’t be able to implement them based solely on its own view of security needs, Verdery said.
“You have to have a buy-in,” said Verdery, now a principal with the Monument Policy Group LLC in Washington. “You have to have people beside you when you’re announcing these kinds of things. It can’t be TSA alone.”
Editors: Bernard Kohn, Michael Shepard. To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at [email protected]. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at [email protected].
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Photo credit: Agency drops plan to allow small knives on planes. Gene Blythe / Associated Press