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Ken DunlapBy Ken Dunlap

This week will be an interesting one for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). On Wednesday, Administrator Neffenger will be laying out his vision for TSA at the Wilson Center. Two important questions will arise from this dialog: Will Congress agree with his vision, and will TSA bureaucracy follow Neffenger’s lead?

My crystal ball says “yes” to Congress and “no” to the bureaucracy. That’s concerning and implies that structural reforms are needed. In this ongoing series, we discuss the six key reforms that can lead to a more strategic and effective agency—TSA 2.0.

The last several months have been tough for the flying public, TSA, and commercial aviation, and a pessimist might say that these have been some of the darker days in recent memory when it comes to the public perception of aviation security. But I prefer to look at it in another way.

We have before us the opportunity to transform our aviation security system in ways that will enhance its efficiency, its reliability, and its sustainability. It is one of those rare moments in public policymaking that doesn’t come along very often. In this case, it didn’t come easily and some may say that the stars collided rather than aligned. But nonetheless, we have an industry, Congress, and Administration looking to reform aviation security, and it’s time to do some thinking.

TSA 2.0 should be an organization that thinks, acts, and has an employee culture that brings out the best within itself and the industry. We don’t have to pick up the TSA buildings, turn them over and shake them out to reach TSA 2.0. We have a solid foundation. What we need to do is set some directions and expectations in the areas of structure, strategy, innovation, scalability, adaptability and engagement to start this journey.

The first of the six reforms needed to enhance our security capabilities is: Transfer the screening functions of TSA to a federally owned corporation created by Congress and governed by a public board of directors; that is, move the Office of Security Operations (OSO) out of TSA and make it accountable.

The glaring problem today is that TSA writes the screening rules, implements the screening procedures, and then monitors itself for compliance. Not exactly a virtuous circle. The current paradigm discourages critical thinking, solving problems with outside-the-box thinking, and calling it like it is when critical functions are reviewed. That’s why news reports indicate TSA failed 95% of the time during Red Team tests in June 2015, plain and simple. Any other excuse you’ve heard is a symptom, not the disease.

The virtuous circle of quality control and quality assurance needs to be built back into TSA. That starts with removing screening operations out of TSA. So, why the radical surgery?

Within the current TSA structure and psyche, OSO has become first among equals in the agency’s day-to-day operations. Many have commented to the various Inspectors General that OSO wields a disproportionate share of influence over the policymaking and international affairs of TSA. Screening as a security process has become the embodiment and driver of strategy, rather than a tool (of which there are many) that can be used to defeat threats to commercial aviation. TSA should oversee OSO and not be moved by OSO.

Removing OSO from TSA would place screening operations in an environment where they can be critically reviewed and tested with objectivity. Additionally, OSO could be given service level standards and performance metrics by which to judge screening effectiveness. This new structure allows for broad governance/oversight of screening operations and accountability to users of the system.

Corporations chartered by Congress are not new. Think the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or the Tennessee Valley Authority. A new Screening Services Corporation (SSC) would share the same pedigree and have a presidentially appointed Board of Directors. The Board would provide governance, set strategy, and hold the SSC leadership accountable for screening performance and customer service levels. For its part, TSA would contract out screening services to the corporation, audit operations, set minimum quality standards, and perform covert testing.

This framework creates a firewall between TSA and the screening operations. It allows policy to be made independently of the screening organization, and it introduces the idea of accountability to the agency and the American public.

In the next installment in this series, we look at another critical reform needed to realize TSA 2.0: creating a grand strategy to align all stakeholder efforts.

Ken Dunlap is a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. For more than a decade, he led many of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) key government affairs activities relating to airports, passengers, cargo, and security. He launched and guided the Checkpoint of the Future program for IATA, and he has testified on global aviation security issues before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.

  • Ilia Rosenberg

    Excellent article! For all those reasons that Ken outlines and many more I believe that moving the OSO out of TSA is the only way to fix the system. I think that many would agree that security in the European airports is at least as good as in the US; many would be surprised to learn that most European screening checkpoints are staffed by the private companies such as G4S. Private sector provides personnel to support the most sensitive DoD/DHS programs and there is no good reason why TSA screening operations should not follow the wider industry best practices.

  • Kevin McCarthy

    Agreed, excellent article. Ken articulates a progressive view of the big picture. TSA screening is indeed a failure as it operates today, burning astronomical funds and failing in their mission with no accountably. The discussion Ken puts forward deserves serious consideration by the Washington insiders.