One-On-One: TSA Administrator Kip Hawley Preps His Final Initiatives
Kip Hawley, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, spoke with BTN senior editor Jay Boehmer this month to discuss the state of transportation security, and the soon-to- be-implemented Secure Flight passenger prescreening system.
BTN: What needs to be done before Secure Flight can launch next year?
Kip Hawley: Secure Flight is within a couple of weeks of being announced with its final rule, so it is undergoing its final reviews within the administration. Then, the next step is to put it in the Federal Register, and it will give the road map from that point. We've had very good input from the people affected through the rule process. We know the concerns that people might have had, and when the rule comes out, those will be well addressed.
BTN: The revamped Secure Flight changes the role for airlines and travel agencies. Does the final rule address that?
Hawley: I can't comment on the final rule until it's final, but it does make it easier throughout the process. Certainly, for the airlines it will remove the burden of doing the work that they'd previously been doing. More importantly, it will virtually eliminate the problem of all those people who think they're on the watchlist or have to go up to get their boarding pass cleared. That whole issue should be virtually solved. All of us underestimated the number of people who were inconvenienced by the issues that existed with the airlines' matching system. That will be the biggest thing noticed by the public.
BTN: Should Secure Flight reduce false positives?
Hawley: We've found in the high 9s—99.99 percent—of the folks who have issues with watchlists are misidentified and in fact are not on the watchlist. Once we get Secure Flight up and running, virtually all of those will wash out. You won't go around telling people who are perfectly fine from a terrorist perspective that the government is interested in them. Fortunately, the government is not interested in very many people in this context.
BTN: The elimination of the TSA background checks for Registered Travelers seems like a philosophical shift on the program.
Hawley: It's just security reality that drives it. You have an enemy that changes the way they operate. In the days following 9/11, you had a sense of what a terrorist looked like. All the frequent flyers were saying, we know we're not terrorists, so they said they should be able to go through more quickly. It has a very appealing logic to it, but the terrorists have figured out—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that they want to use Western operatives who have no distinguishing characteristics from anyone else who is a business traveler. All the things you can do on a quick background check, you can easily defeat with what we call a clean skin. If you go through the bombers in Glasgow or the folks in the July 2005 bombings, the terrorists they selected had clean backgrounds. We don't want to give a free pass to somebody who could do us harm. That was the philosophical problem. It was more a changing enemy than a changing position. We felt the Registered Traveler community was doing a good job on the ID piece. We wanted to recognize that work with the ID, but we didn't want to false advertise to the American public that we'll do this miniature threat assessment—which was absolutely not a background check, not a criminal history check—it was just, "Are you not on the watchlist?" We didn't want people to say, "All I'm getting is a cut to the front of the line." We didn't want to get in the middle of that. It's not a security program, but an ID program.
BTN: Has registered traveler become a front-of-the-line program like what the airlines offer for frequent travelers?
Hawley: The problem is that's what it always was. Now, this is at least just saying flat- out, "This is a front-of-the-line program with a good biometric ID."
BTN: There has been some discussion of relaxing the liquid ban, pending technology enhancements. What is a reasonable timeframe for it and what needs to be done?
Hawley: I might blog on this myself just to get it all out in one piece, on the record. We knew immediately in August 2006 that we needed to get some technology that would allow us to quickly determine what's a threat liquid and what's not. The ban would be temporary until we could come up with a technology that would do it automatically. What is not temporary is terrorists' use of liquid explosives to bring on the plane. We have to address it.
We now have been buying advanced X-rays, and we'll have something like 400 out by the end of the month. This offers a platform that already is better than a regular X-ray. When the software is developed so that we can determine threat versus non-threat liquids, that is the key. We're working with our international partners and we've shared classified information with them. They know our tolerances and our requirements, we know theirs and we're working with manufacturers that can work under the explosive requirements in the U.S. and the EU. In about a year, which will then be about October 2009, by then we'll be in a position: The algorithms will be out there and the machines will be out there. Then, we'll have an opportunity to say, "Should we do this, should we do that?"
BTN: You are a presidential appointee. What happens when the new administration comes in January?
Hawley: At noon on Jan. 20 is the official moment. I will leave at that point, if not before. I expect that I will finish out the term with Secretary Chertoff and the rest of us, but you should know that there are four political appointees at TSA, so the entire operations and the workings of TSA are unaffected by that. For me, it's a big difference because I'll go home to California, but for the agency, I am the fourth administrator. It has already been through transitions and the career staff here is well prepared and certainly these directions in which we are going don't have any political bent one way or the other. These are core operating things for which you are going to need more technology and training. All these things are not politically dependent. Those will all continue.
BTN: In regard to Secure Flight, date of birth is not a data element travel agents currently collect, so they'd likely have to modify some systems. Are there any timeframes for when they'd have to be compatible?
Hawley: I can't tell you what the exact milestones are, but the first thing that we want to do, notionally, is allow those who want to start work to begin implementing immediately. We'll have a process that stretches out over a considerable period of time to allow the industry to adjust and make the changes that you mention. That is principally the issue that the travel community will have to deal with, particularly the airlines, to accommodate the date-of-birth information. But it's not a huge volume of additional data, and it's not complex. It's not so much a technical challenge, but a matter of getting around to it.
BTN: The self-select, or Black Diamond, program continues to expand at a rapid rate. Is the plan to make those lanes standard operating procedure at U.S. airports?
Hawley: I think it is. The great thing about it is it's self-adopting, and it's led by the consumer. It works great for us, and we get fabulous feedback from passengers and I think it is expanding. One of the messages there—and it's not rocket science to figure this out—but passengers want to have some control over their security process. They don't want to be treated the same as everybody else. If they behave differently for us, in terms of being better prepared, we want to give them an outlet to encourage them to speed through. We're looking at ways to further develop the process and make it more attractive. It's expanding horizontally in terms of the number of airports, but we're also looking to expand it in depth to make it a more beneficial program.
Hawley: I can tell you what the impact is. Clearly, the Black Diamond lanes are faster. It varies day by day, but they are measurably faster. The family lanes are a little bit slower, but we're finding that the highest satisfaction level comes from the people in the family lanes: They're not hassled, they're taking their time and, as a result, they're better prepared when they go through. It's a little bit of a slower process, but it's a friendlier, happier process.
BTN: What kind of priorities would you lay out in 2009 for whoever your successor may be? Do you have a hand in shaping the direction of whoever takes over the reins?
Hawley: Your job is to stop attacks. Once you get your head around that, you get pretty busy. Then you say, "How are we going to stop attacks?" We have information, which is connected to the intelligence community, law enforcement, our people and our partners. You have to keep on top of that and make sure that happens. You have to attract the best people, train them the best and keep them ahead of what they are trying to do. Then, technology: You've got to keep ahead of technology and buy technology that makes sense and get it deployed. When you're finished with that, your term is up. It's been four years. You come in with all sorts of priorities, but the reality of these jobs are that it is such an intense operational environment that you have to focus on the hardcore basis of the business, which is stopping attacks on the transportation system.
BTN: We're in the midst of declining travel demand, and in theory fewer passengers would mean less revenue for TSA. Does the administration have to recalibrate for that outlook and does that impact funding or budgets?
Hawley: We live in the real world, and we have to stay very closely linked to have our resources to match what our operating needs are. We are very comfortable through what would be fiscal 2009, going through to the end of September. We are very fortunate in that DHS did get its appropriations bill completed and signed by the president, so the agency has its bucket of money for the coming year. We are confident it's the right number. Right now, we are preparing the 2010 budget and the new administration will have to take a look at that. That will be the opportunity. The mission is so important, and everybody agrees we have to be able to do the mission. We also understand that we have to run our agency more efficiently every year and continue to make that kind of productivity improvement to lower cost to the taxpayer, regardless of what happens with passenger loads. We definitely feel the pressure to operate as efficiently as possible. Keep in mind that we can't just shift cost to our private-sector partners, because they live in the real world too. We have to stay very tightly in sync with our aviation industry partners and tighten our belts just as they do.
BTN: Personally, are there any plans for next year? Any roles in private industry in the works? Perhaps starting a Registered Traveler company?
Hawley: No, no, no. I'm going to go home to California and change my name. I'll eventually come back to something in the technology area, but I won't be selling to the government, I hope.