Hawley Closing in The Economist debate

Hawley Closing Statement, The Economist Aviation Security Debate


This is not a debate, it is not even a divide; it is a complete fracture.  A fracture of this magnitude on this topic is not cause for celebration, nor can it be shrugged off as steam vented by angry travelers who just don’t see the hidden world of real plots and effective security measures.


Immediately after 9/11, I expect that virtually all of us were united, determined to stand up against acts of terrorism. I know that many of the “Yes” voters in this debate feel so strongly about their position exactly because of their commitment against terrorism. I am pretty sure that the same is true for “No” voters (probably because I know all of them personally). The fault-line in public support of airport security does not break neatly along political lines but rather appears to me that the rift is between the many people who are past listening and those who aren’t. I believe we are at this place today not because of stupidity or ill will anywhere along the spectrum, but for the simple reason that in our rush to react after 9/11, we picked the regulatory toolkit to address our need for enhanced security and now it is working against us.


It should be no surprise that millions of passengers a day going through checkpoints around the world produce unique fact combinations that stress even the most comprehensive rules interpreted by the best-trained security personnel. We hear about them all the time: toddlers, breast milk and sensitive medical conditions are in the news too frequently connected to airport security.


Publication of system rules and enforcing literal compliance is an approach better served to address safety issues where the enemy is gravity tugging predictably on wing assemblies, etc. A terrorist, even a dumb terrorist, does not behave according to peer-reviewed, scientifically certified patterns. In fact, terrorists adapt their attacks to evade security defenses. Predictable, overly rule-based security measures play right into their hands and are also dangerously ineffective if used alone. This is not a problem just in the United States, the vast majority of travelers worldwide pass through regulation-based systems. Ten years of this may have worked to protect us, but however one scores it; airport security now drives everybody crazy with frustration.


We have added more flexible, unpredictable security measures than the original batch and they have been effective (even though we have not done well in pulling out the outdated rules). In my rebuttal I cited a series of specific plots against aviation in support of my case that there is a causal connection between security measures post 9/11 and billions of safe arrivals. Here I will cite a specific instance from the first quarter of 2008 where TSA demonstrated that “intelligence, investigation and emergency response” have already been integrated into security operations. One Friday evening at about seven o’clock a flash message came into TSA’s intelligence Watch Center from a partner in the intelligence community. It involved a potential bomber entering the aviation system elsewhere in the world. TSA identified flights leaving the affected area to the United States and discovered that one was scheduled to depart imminently. TSA, with the support of other agencies, airlines, and the host government arranged for targeted security measures for that flight and all others until the threat was resolved. Elapsed time from the intelligence bulletin arriving until the new security measures were complete: less than one hour. At TSA today, such work is routine and they are striving to add more risk analysis and flexibility to the mix.


Don’t give up in disgust. Terrorism is not going away. Painful as it has been, we have learned vital lessons about what works and what doesn’t, given that we are faced with an enemy who changes methods at will. We need to get public consensus around the right way to fight terrorism within our budget and consistent with our values. If we just attribute today’s failures to ‘those idiots,’ we risk bringing in a new group of people after the next attack and make the same mistake again. We have learned that the risk we face is non-linear and security measures therefore have to be unpredictable and effective against threats that we imagine and those we don’t. We have learned that a string of castle-like checkpoints staffed by guards strung across airports is not as good as virtual netting that links governments, industry and the public. Common effort among flexible, smart, connected networks give us the best chance to be proactive with minimal cost and intrusion. Rather than look back in anger at what we have lost, I propose to learn from our experience and come together on a security strategy that is sustainable and will keep us ahead of future threats.


The dangers of terrorist attack do not fall to you alone any more than the job of protecting you falls to security officers alone. We are all in this together.  Did security services, including airport security, prevent multiple occurrences of 9/11 scale attacks? Yes. Has airport security made serious mistakes along the way? Yes. Have we learned how to operate in sync across organizations and nations? Yes. Is there a critical mass of the public demanding better from airport security? Yes. Can we come together and make it happen? Maybe. Is all of that more harm than good? No.




  • In this riveting expose, former TSA administrator Kip Hawley reveals the secrets behind the agency's ongoing battle to outthink and outmaneuver terrorists, illuminating the flawed, broken system that struggles to stay one step ahead of catastrophe.

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