This piece is in response to a blog post from Security Debrief contributor Jeff Sural, part of an ongoing debate about former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley’s recent criticism of TSA.

By Doug Doan
I enjoyed your response to my earlier article criticizing Kip Hawley for being too timid and his rather late conversion to understanding TSA security is ineffective, expensive, and demeaning.

I also agree that Hawley has made some fine suggestions on how to fix the mess.

But I fear you missed my key point. I argue that the key problems that plague DHS/CBP/TSA are not so much policy driven, but leadership issues. Or, put more bluntly, a succession of poor and timid leaders that are unwilling to make difficult choices or align themselves with unpopular, but wiser, policies until they are safely out of office and pursuing consultant fees.

You offer a good point that wiser TSA policy was driven, in part, by foolish elected members of Congress. You report legislators “literally screamed at him for removing scissors from the prohibited items list.” I can appreciate the discomfort, but should the existence of a “screaming Congressmen” really be a legitimate excuse for adopting unwise policy? Our nation has any number of examples of incredibly stupid elected members of Congress that have screamed for all sorts of idiocy, sometimes even passing legislation. We had Congressmen pass legislation to intern Japanese in the 1940s, pass harmful tariffs which would deepen that Great Depression, we even had a Congresswoman not long ago that screamed about a CIA plot to manufacture crack cocaine, which she was convinced would be used to kill African Americans in Los Angeles.

It seems to me a good leader should be willing to see past the screaming Congressmen and never lose sight of the desired goal. As the former boss of TSA, Kip Hawley had his chance. He could have stood strong and pushed for any one of the many proposals he now hopes to champion. But he took the easier and well-worn path of not rocking the boat. He missed his opportunity and his chance passed.

Last, in your essay, you also state that it will “behoove policymakers to sit down with Kip Hawley” if they are serious about learning how to fix TSA. What I find so troubling is that Kip Hawley already had his chance to “sit down” with senior policy makers when he testified in front of Senate and House committees on multiple occasions. The whole point of those many, many hearings was for him to tell Congress what was wrong and offer solutions. But he didn’t. Instead, he went in another direction of telling members exactly what they wanted to hear. To illustrate the point even further, I grabbed some of the official Testimony Hawley delivered to Congress. Here is a snippet of his testimony:

“We know their focus is on using items easily available off grocery and hardware store shelves. That means we cannot rely on a checklist mentality—searching bags for a static list of specific, prohibited objects or becoming stuck in a predicable—and therefore vulnerable—routine.

We must use security measures that are unpredictable, agile and adaptable, that put us one step ahead of evolving threats.

As I have said in previous meetings with this Committee:

    • TSA has added layers of security and additional technology to our airport operations.
    • We have continued to provide more training and real threat testing for our front line officers.
    • Federal Air Marshals move invisibly to protect Americans wherever they fly around the globe.”

As you can see, nowhere does Kip Hawley ever once suggest that TSA is broken and the concept of security flawed when he had a chance to inform Congress. He served up pabulum and never once stood with courage, grit or fortitude.

Is that really leadership?

  • Doug,
    Thanks for reading my piece. To be honest my post was more of a reaction to Kip’s WSJ piece than a response to your posting so I probably did not address each of your criticisms. To clarify – Kip did change the scissors policy to allow scissors into the sterile area in the face of strong opposition by certain members of Congress. He also went to great lengths to have the law changed to allow the same for lighters. I didn’t mention this but he also introduced AIT and behavior detection officers as part of TSA’s security tool box. All part of his plan to make the agency more risked-based focused. There were a number of changes and policies implemented during his tenure that demonstrate that he was not a timid leader. However, the examples I cited were not necessarily meant to defend Kip’s courage, but to explain that there are many forces – including laws passed by Congress – that bind TSA’s policy and operational decisions. As in any relationship he picked his battles, the battles he knew he needed to win to advance his vision. During his discussions with Congress – both public and private – he conveyed his vision of moving towards risk-based security and away from a check-list mentality. That hasn’t changed: from his Senate confirmation hearing, to the testimony above, to the WSJ article and presumably his book. I think his WSJ article was meant to point out that there are still real problems with transportation/aviation security and he did his best during his short tenure (as a political appointee of the Bush Administration his tenure ended with that Administration – another force or hurdle impacting leadership style/effectiveness) to address those problems. Could he have been more forthcoming when he testified in front of Congress about the specific problems he faced or the mistakes TSA had made? Maybe. Then again you have to consider a number of variables and the consequences of doing that – not only political (let’s face it this is Washington and in those positions you represent the Secretary and the President), but operational (our foes are listening and watching) and the impact on the public’s perception and confidence. Also, Kip’s WSJ piece looks at the agency in the three years since he left and the changes that have taken place. Finally, some things are better said after leaving or parting ways – like in any relationship – because they are more effective or more insightful. I have seen plenty of former public servants leave office and call it quits. Instead of viewing Kip’s book or recent opinions as a timid act, maybe they should be applauded. He’s still engaged and concerned about the security of our nation.