I recently offered a pair of blog articles that documented my travels through TSA security checkpoints. In those articles, I attempted to first provide a reasonably accurate recitation of events. I then outlined the concerns I have as a result of those events, and provided some historical, professional and social context for those concerns. I have been amazed at the quality, thoughtfulness and substance of many of the replies that have been posted in response.
Unfortunately, all of this pales when compared to the recent posting on the Internet of the TSA Operations Manual.
Today, I googled the term ‘TSA Operations Manual’ and got 74,900 hits in .11 seconds. The secret SOP genie is finally out of the bottle and is merrily flying around the Internet while curious folks like me are pointing, waving and effectively taking pictures. I completed a cursory review of the manual in an attempt to ascertain whether answers to questions asked by me and by other travelers were accurate. I have come, begrudgingly, to the short-term conclusion that many TSA screeners are prolific prevaricators or, more likely, have a highly compromised command of TSA Operations Policy. This leads me to overlapping areas of even greater concern: accountability and opportunity.
In my first post on Homeland Security Watch, I suggested that we, the traveling public, are responsible for the screening processes that we subject ourselves to whenever we choose to fly. These processes, I argued, unfold in both an inconsistent and haphazard manner, as opposed to an “unpredictable in order to be hard to defeat” manner. I wrote that by sleep walking through security check points with blind trust in the TSA’s ability to keep us safe, we have reaped what we have sown with our passivity. I indicated that I intend to challenge TSA when opportunity presents, which in my experience has been most frequently represented by my tendency to get selected for “random” (which it is not) secondary screening (which is flawed and inconsistent).
Now, I find myself having to roust myself from the temporary comfort of knowing that “someone,” (or five someones, in this case) is being held accountable for the failed redaction and ultimate Internet release of the TSA Ops Manual. In my past experience as a police officer, I have both observed and been accused of engaging in an organizational response that is presented as accountability, but is more readily refered to as ‘scapegoating’.
Since we now know that five employees of TSA have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the release of this supposed “secret” document, perhaps the time is right to challenge ourselves, TSA officials and those with oversight responsibility to be wary of the difference between accountability and scapegoating. I offer a five point sketch of those differences, especially as they regard leadership, consistency, fairness, clarity and justice.
1- Is agency leadership being held to the same degree of accountability as the individuals who are currently on leave, pending investigation? Currently, there is no way to know the answer to that question due to necessary protections being provided to the affected personnel. While it is easy to succumb to the appeal of the voices singing for heads on platters, it is important to keep in mind that the affected employees may be innocent of any transgression (indeed, maybe not) and their privacy must be protected in order that a fair determination can be made. Eventually, we will need to know the outcome and consequences of this review to first, rest assured that manure can and will roll up the chain of command as effectively as it rolls down. Second, we need to be certain that when it comes to the potential dismissal of employees, other, less altruistic agendas are not at work.
2-Are the affected employees being treated in a manner that is consistent with similar past transgressions and that considers their overall work record? Some will argue that heads must roll, and quickly, for this screw-up. Ordinarily, I might agree. But there are two problem with this swift response mode. First, I have observed that pressure to demonstrate to the public that swift action is being taken frequently leads to flawed decisions. There is often an incongruent relationship between swift and accurate. Second, consider that TSA is an agency that has been oozing hubris for a number of years now. I believe that sufficient evidence is available to indicate that the operations manual release is symptomatic of a far larger problem, or series of problems, which have been continuing fodder for many a critical blog entry and media article.
3- Are the affected employees enjoying the protections that can and must be offered to federal employees subject to administrative investigations? Keep in mind that there has been no mention of a criminal investigation into this matter. This is an administrative matter, but the potential consequences to the affected employees are significant. Tossing a few GS -14 or 15 heads to Congress may satiate the dogs and render them sluggish. We need to be keenly aware of the potential exercise of diversionary discipline and stay hungry for information and evidence of commitment to organizational improvement.
4-Were the processes governing the handling of the TSA Operations manual clear and consistent? Section I.4.B of the manual indicates that the released document is identified SSI, or sensitive security information, in accordance with 49 CFR 1520. This section of the law indicates that SSI regulations only apply to “covered persons,” to wit:
Covered person means any organization, entity, individual, or other person described in §1520.7. In the case of an individual, covered person includes any individual applying for employment in a position that would be a covered person, or in training for such a position, regardless of whether that individual is receiving a wage, salary, or other form of payment. Covered person includes a person applying for certification or other form of approval that, if granted, would make the person a covered person described in §1520.7.
In short, if you are neither cleared or employed by the government, you are exempt from this regulation and cannot be held accountable for the release of SSI that comes to your attention. Additionally, Section 1.4.D offers a list of “covered” persons authorized to possess the document. The list is lengthy. Section 1.4.E provides the process to report lost or stolen copies. Since people’s jobs are on the line for this release, I believe it is fair to ask how many times the document has been previously reported lost or stolen, and what, if anything, the outcome of the investigations into these reports revealed. Those answers are critical to defining the true damage that this release has caused. Until that definition is clarified, it will be impossible to determine an appropriate “punishment” for this transgression.
5- What is the point? Collectively, we seem to have quickly concluded that the release of this SOP has provided potential terrorists with a readily available “how-to-defeat TSA guide”. Maybe so. What this release really caused is a further erosion of public trust in and support for a deeply troubled agency. Perhaps, that is not at all a bad thing.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 demonstrated to all of us that terrorists do not need a SOP to be successful. Terrorists will almost always make their plans based upon what we do, not on what our SOPs say we do.
We know from the release of this document that what TSA has been doing and what its SOP says it was supposed to be doing are not always the same thing (I was particularly drawn to procedures regarding opposite sex searches and selections for secondary screening). If we now fully sucumb to our lingering fear of openly questioning these policies and those that are developed to replace them, then we have missed a very important point regarding the nature of democracy. More disturbing, we are effectively doing more damage to that entity than the terrorists could ever hope to inflict.
We know that the SOP genie ain’t going back in that bottle. Accordingly, we need to demand that the TSA seize this event as an opportunity to engage us, the American Traveling Public, in a meaningful effort to revamp the nonsensical processes and inconsistent procedures that have stoked a growing conflagaration of public anger for years.
If we, as the consumers of these publcily funded and vital safety services, take the easy and inviting path by merely waiting for the GS heads to be placed on spikes in front of the palace, then shame on us all. We will have missed our chance at meaningful reform and possibly, truly enhanced safety. Then, the fault lies at our own feet, every time we take off our shoes at a checkpoint. That would be true justice.