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Kip Hawley's Suggested TSA Reforms and "Permanent Emergency"

Complaints about the TSA are numerous and perpetual. Everyone from the Congressional committees who created TSA to self-described security experts to the most recently inconvenienced passenger has a story, and an opinion, about what needs to be changed. But nothing much happens after the initial venting.

But when a thoughtful critique, and significant suggestions for reform, come from someone who led the agency for three-plus years, we may finally be getting somewhere. And by somewhere I mean on a more defined path to securing our transportation network more effectively and efficiently.

Kip Hawley’s piece this weekend in the Wall Street Journal should have excited anyone who follows the travails of TSA. Mostly silent on the subject since he left in 2009 as the fourth TSA administrator, Kip unleashed a whopper of a critique. With his book on the subject of TSA and the state of air travel security, Permanent Emergency, due out on April 24, the timing of the piece is not surprising. Timing is everything – especially in sales and policy making – and policy makers should recognize this as an opportunity.

Emerging detractors are accusing Kip of opportunism and the failure to implement his ideas while at the agency. But, as he points out, his recommendations face several hurdles, the most significant of which may be changes to the existing law, a law that saddles the agency with anti-risk-based mandates such as 100 percent screening thresholds and the use of specific technologies.

I worked for Kip for two years at TSA and vividly recall congressional briefings where members of Congress literally screamed at him for removing scissors from the prohibited items list. We faced a legal challenge when he tried to remove lighters from the list because a law had been passed specifically banning lighters. Only after extensive briefings on the current and emerging threats facing the aviation community was Congress willing to give TSA the discretion to make the call on lighters.

Also, his proposals require public acceptance of a certain amount of risk, which most people are verbally willing to accept up to the point of a real-life incident. After the “underwear bomber,” people were outraged that AIT machines were not in use at passenger checkpoints to detect non-metallic, concealed items. Now people are outraged they are in use.

Legislative mandates, or prescriptive regulations, are the antithesis of a risk-based security system and merely create, in Kip’s words, an “Easter egg hunt” process. After the coming out party and press junket, it would behoove policy makers to sit down with Kip – on more than one occasion – and, if serious about fundamental reform to create a more effective transportation security policy, crank up the sausage-making machine.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More