Saturday, December 07, 2002

Welcome Instapundit Readers
I know, Blogger stinks. If you didn't get properly linked to the post just scroll down to the post More Disinformation on TSA.

The post right below this one should be of interest to you as well.

Thanks for stopping by.
TSA Failures
While I work for TSA I like to think that gives me a balanced view of both the successes and failures of the agency. It is fairly amazing they met the November deadline to federalize all the airports. I didn't think they'd manage that especially considering the speed they were moving this summer. They also did a great job of moving the Thanksgiving traffic through the airports in a timely manner. We had a brand new workforce and customers who were confronting a new system for the first time. TSA also gets high marks for being friendly making security as pleasant as an experience as possible.

On the other hand there have been some spectacular TSA failures. It is worth examining them in some detail. On November 14th Miami International had to evacuate a terminal (or in our terminology- dump a terminal) because a screener feel asleep on the exit lane. This failure was apparently reported by passengers leaving the airport. The exit at Miami was covered by a video camera, and TSA quickly ran the tape back to make sure no one entered the terminal through that exit. They were relieved to discover no one had. Unfortunately watching the rest of the tape revealed that two hours earlier two passengers had walked right by a wide awake screener. Though I can't find anything in print my sources indicate that the two screeners were both fired.

It is bad enough having people fall asleep on their post. I remember a well publicized photo of a sleeping screener that made its way around the blogsphere post 9/11. But there is no excuse for allowing people to walk by you when you are wide awake. You are left to wonder how many times people fell asleep and no passengers bothered to report it. Or how many people walked by wide awake screeners on the exit.

A double failure happened at San Jose airport. On November 3rd and again on November 21st the ironically named Norman Mineta International airport had terminals evacuated because screeners doing explosive trace detection (ETD) received positive results and allowed the passengers and luggage to leave the checkpoint and enter the terminal area. It appears that in both cases the screeners let the passengers go and left the machine with the alarm on it. It wasn't until co-workers attempted to use the machine that the alarms were recognized.

I don't know what brand of ETD machines are in place at San Jose, but all the ones I've seen give you both visual and auditory alarms. It is mighty hard to mistake a positive. It is possible that this was the first time the TSA employees saw a positive. They are somewhat rare- I worked for six weeks before I saw one. But not recognizing an alarm is a huge failure- what good is the equipment if you ignore it? The fact that the same incident happened at the same airport less than three weeks latter is mind boggling. We are fortunate that the results were apparently due to a faulty machine in the first case, and a false positive in the second.

What has TSA done to improve the situation? Nothing as far as I can tell. While the involved airports might have taken action nothing has percolated to other locations. The only reason the checkpoint workers at my airport know about these incidents is because I brought in the articles. No attempt was made to communicate these faults to the staff in an effort to learn from them. I note that we get lots of positive memos congratulating us on handling the Thanksgiving traffic or having good customer service scores. None of our procedures have changes as a result of either set of incidents.

You would expect one of the advantages of having a national government agency in charge of security would be the quick distribution of information and learning from local problems and mistakes. But the way the TSA has empowered the local Federal Security Directors (FSD's) at each airport cuts against that. Each FSD has a great deal of autonomy. The logical behind this is to allow the FSD to adjust TSA processes and procedures to the unique situation at his airport. Every checkpoint and layout is different. For example, in Miami they only have a video camera backing up the person on the exit. At my airport we have both cameras and a motion detector that alarms if anyone attempts to enter the terminal through the exit.

The downside of the decentralized FSD system is that the "national standard" of procedures is somewhat of a myth. The local FSD can overrule Washington and the written TSA standard operating procedures. So despite all checkpoints being run by one big happy TSA the items that were cleared in Seattle might be confiscated in Denver. The laudable goal of adapting to local conditions is leading us to the same mixed rules security system we had before. Only this time the government is nominally in charge.

Finally there is the December 1st El Paso incident. What exactly happened is unclear. The best description I heard was that a screener saw a gun on x-ray and then lost track of it. The result was a terminal dump. TSA has been quiet about the incident, prefering a no comment posture.

If my guess is right we will never hear a public explaination from TSA. They haven't issued reports on the Miami or San Jose dumps either. And they won't be releasing the results of security studies either. That means you won't know if the agency is performing any better than the contract screeners they replaced. The reason? Why security of course. That information is now classified. Feel any safer?

I can only comment on what is happening in my airport at my terminal. I am confident that my crew is doing a better job of detecting threats than the previous screeners. But with over 400 airports in the TSA system I can't vouch for everyone. Only access to the results of ongoing security tests by TSA inspectors can tell us that. This is our government- we deserve to know if our five billion dollars has bought us improved security or just gave 51,000 people government jobs.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

More Disinformation on TSA
Instapundit links to an article by Brock Yates on airline security. For those of you not up on things automotive, Mr. Yates is an editor for Car and Driver. He has forgotten more about cars than I know. But I think I have one up on his on the airline security front. He writes:

I was delighted to learn that the Dick Tracys who man our airport security checkpoints confiscated 16,000 knives over the Thanksgiving weekend. Of course a vast majority of those weapons were not Bowie knives, machetes, stilettos or switch-blades, but rather pen-knives, nail scissors, Swiss Army Knives and letter openers inadvertently stowed in normal folks luggage.

As far as he goes, he is correct. We take a lot of "inadvertent" Swiss Army knives on key chains. But even if I totally conceded that the above statement is 100% true we are still left with a percentage of those items that were Bowie knives, machetes, stilettos or switch-blades. Some of those may not have been "inadvertent" items. In fact I know some of them weren't because I was at the airport taking them away.

Any you know why the ban is for all knives? Try writing a definition of what knives you will allow and which you won't. And make it simple enough to be easily understood by 51,000 different screeners with no room for ambiguity or debate. It can't be done. And you'd feel horrible if that knife you defined as "safe" was used to commit a violent act on an aircraft.

This implied vigilance by the FAA's gimlet-eyed Fosdicks is yet another example of how misguided and marginally farcical the entire Homeland Security agenda truly is. While airport personal are routing grandmas with walkers and midwestern ministers, who knows what kind of dirty bombs are being loaded into the cargo bays or who is lurking around the runway perimeters with hand-held SA-7 missiles?

See, I start having problems with people who want to discuss the topic of airport security and don't get the basics correct. TSA is not part of the FAA. We are a separate agency in the Department of Transportation and will soon be in Homeland Security. FAA has nothing to do with us.

He also sets up two strawmen. The first is that the TSA is "routing grandmas with walkers and midwestern ministers". Yes, we do screen those people because we screen everyone. And the thing about security work is that 99% of the time (or more) nothing is happening. There is no terrorist. But you have to treat every alarm as a possible threat. So if grandma sets off the metal detector, we are going to find out why. We don't know whether her grandson asked her to carry his 357 for him without telling her it was in the bag. After seeing 6 year olds overseas with explosives strapped to them we can't assume the kids aren't carrying something as well. If we give a group a free pass how long before the terrorists figure that out and use it?

The second strawman is the fact that cargo is unscreened and the fact that the airports are in danger from hand held SAMs. Before the details, note that on 9/11 the terrorists did not use a bomb in cargo or a SAM. They came through checkpoints and hijacked planes. Does Mr. Yates think we should have responded to that by leaving the passenger screening the same and concentrating on other avenues of attack?

Cargo is a problem. So is checked baggage for that matter. TSA is working on checked baggage, and I'm betting Mr. Yates won't like having all his bags inspected come the new year. TSA is working on cargo as well, but there is only so much money in the budget so that might take years. And all of that does nothing to solve the problems of cargo containers at the ports or open borders to the north and south. Given the size of the problem it makes sense to have a serious national discussion about where to spend our security dollars.

As for SAMs that is in many respects a more limited problem. There are only so many SAMs around and it does take skill to use them effectively. Plus it is far from an automatic kill on a large jetliner. Trying to defend against SAMs at each airport is pretty much futile- it will take more resources than it is worth. Far better to work on counter-terrorism and deny the terrorists the weapons through active use of intelligence resources. If you want to learn more about this topic, I recommend Three Decades of Missiles versus Airliners by James Dunnigan as an excellent starting point.

I have a friend who is the chief pilot of a Fortune 500 Company. He flies a new Gulfstream IV executive jet and like his commercial pilot associates, is subjected to the same security checks as normal passengers. He has more than once been forced to surrender his nail clippers, pen-knife and toothpick holder before boarding his own aircraft.

At my airport we do not screen the executive jet pilots or passengers. If any screening goes it is done by contractors, not TSA. But if Brock's friend came through our checkpoint, he would be allowed to retain his nail clipper and toothpick holder. But no knives. No one is allowed to bring a knife through.

He muses that on the cockpit bulkhead of every large jet is a giant, titanium-bladed fire ax that, in the hands of a madman, could literally tear the fuselage in half. That weapon, thanks to the genius bureaucrats who run airline security, is permitted on board.

Often people wonder why the flight crew must be screened for the same reasons Brock's friend raises. The pilot already has control of the aircraft, for example. There are several reasons we screen all flight crew, but the critical one is that the screeners at the checkpoint don't have any way to verify who is a real flight crew member and who is an imposter. It is much easier and safer to just treat everyone the same- one set of rules for all.

I'm with Yates on all the things we are not doing. I just wish he had more understanding of what is being done and why.