Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 27, 2011

TSA’S Baggage Problem

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on March 27, 2011

Recently, I served as a member of the US Travel Association’s Blue Ribbon Panel for Aviation Security,  a group brought together to evaluate aviation security.  US Travel, based on recommendations made by the panel, released a report, A Better Way, Building a World Class System for Aviation Security.  The report made recommendations, based on the following goals and recommendations:

  • Goal Number One – Improve the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint by increasing efficiency, decreasing passenger wait times and screening passengers based on risk
    • Implement a risk-based Trusted Traveler program
    • Give TSA authority over entire checkpoint area
    • Improve preparation of travelers
    • Encourage fewer carry-on bags
  • Goal Number Two – Improve governmental efficiency and cooperation in the execution of its security responsibilities
    • Reinstitute the Aviation Security Advisory Committee
    • Facilitate non-partisan leadership of TSA
    • Develop a comprehensive technology procurement strategy
    • Encourage wider use of secure identification documents
    • Reduce duplicative TSA screening for international arrivals
    • Expand trusted traveler programs to qualified international passengers
    • Eliminate duplication between TSA and CBP
    • Push for international cooperation with U.S. security standards
  • Goal Number Three – Restructure our national approach to aviation security by developing and utilizing real risk management methods and tools
    • Implement well-defined risk management processes

If there was an underlying theme throughout the paper and recommendations, it is “let’s ensure that aviation security is risk-based and we have an established risk management process.”  A risk-based Trusted Traveler concept is one for which TSA Administrator Pistole has advocated in front of Congress and various business groups over the last several months.

One recommendation for which security concerns may not be apparent at first blush but is costing millions and will be a huge problem if unaddressed is the number of carry-ons being brought onto planes.  The recent trend of airlines charging travelers for any checked bags is forcing a number of passengers to bring more carry-on bags onto each flight.  The result: increased checkpoint congestion and the government having to dedicate more resources, equipment, and personnel to screen passenger bags. Secretary Napolitano, earlier this month, estimated during a Congressional hearing that the extra carry-on baggage generated by checked baggage fees is costing TSA $260 million.

What will happen as the economy improves and more people begin to fly more? What types of costs, delays, and congestion will result? Is it really a good use of our security resources to force TSA to focus on screening carry-on bags instead of looking for terrorist threats?

The report recommends that the Department of Transportation issue regulations requiring that airlines allow all passengers one checked bag, even if that bag is limited to the size of a carry-on bag.  It also recommends that DOT set standards for the number and size of items that a passenger can bring on a plane. These are common-sense recommendations that will not only make the experience of travelers better but will allow our security officials to focus on security, as opposed to random bags.

January 29, 2011

Kip Hawley: Compliance with security procedures is not enough

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christopher Bellavita on January 29, 2011

from: latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-hawley-tsa-20110129,0,5091218.story

Plugging the airport security gaps

Post-9/11 security has done its job, but we must continue to adapt. To foil endlessly resourceful terrorists, we need to improve in three areas.


[note: the three areas are:

1. Multiple layers of security deployed throughout the airport that are changing regularly and seem unpredictable.

2. Ownership of the security result must be jointly shared by TSA, the airports, airlines, law enforcement, vendors and  the traveling public

3. Active assessment and allocation of risk-management resources that balance risk tradeoffs]

By Kip Hawley

January 29, 2011

After this week’s airport bomb attack in Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that there was a “systemic failure to provide security.” That is difficult to dispute. But the claims of Domodedovo Airport’s spokesperson that “we fully met all the requirements in the sphere of air transport security for which we are responsible” was probably also correct. Yet ultimately, dozens of people are dead and dozens more wounded. So who is to blame? What’s wrong with the system? And are we in America also at risk?

In the United States, we divide security responsibility according to who performs the activity. For example, Transportation Security Administration personnel search carry-on bags at checkpoints, while airport law enforcement officers patrol the airport perimeter. TSA also requires that airports make public address announcements and not allow vehicles to park at the airport curb, and that airlines inspect aircraft food trays. Each activity costs money, so TSA requires only what it can justify, write down and audit.

But security that depends on an auditable checklist of written requirements is always going to be vulnerable to an enemy that can change the method of attack based on those regulations. Once TSA publishes what is required, three things happen: vulnerability is embedded where those measures are weak; the minimum required becomes the maximum undertaken by the security players; and the regulated party feels protected from blame because it did what was required. Unfortunately, in counter-terrorism, regulations alone are not enough.

When responsibility is finally determined in Russia, there probably will be a gap between what Domodedovo Airport was required to do and what it could have done to prevent the attack. But top-down rules allocate responsibility in slices, fragmenting responsibility, thereby eliminating any one party’s accountability in security’s overall outcome. A corollary vulnerability is that no government can issue regulations quickly enough to cover every conceivable angle of attack. Therefore, if compliance with set rules is our system, it is a system born to fail.

Post-9/11 security has done its job, but we must continue to adapt. To foil endlessly resourceful terrorists, we need to improve in three areas.

First, we need multiple layers of security deployed throughout the airport that are changing regularly and, to outsiders, seem unpredictable. Layers such as K-9 teams, random inspections and behavior detection agents, by their very randomness, prevent terrorists from identifying a security gap and exploiting it.

Second, ownership of the security result must be jointly shared. TSA, the airports, airlines, law enforcement, vendors and, yes, the traveling public all share responsibility for our security outcomes. The fear of blame within a security apparatus leads to bureaucratic inaction, which eventually leads to gaping security holes.

And last, we need active assessment and allocation of risk-management resources that balance what I call risk tradeoffs.

Effective security is, in fact, risk management. Our political leaders and security authorities make judgments about where to set the risk-management needle. They have chosen to take the minimum possible risk at airport passenger checkpoints, resulting in pat-downs and plastic bags. The needle registers a little more tolerance in the maintenance area, or so-called backside of airports, and more still in the public areas. But how much risk do we want to accept in these public areas? And how much more hassle can we take?

When we call for more security in public areas, we should be searching for a risk balance that protects us yet is sustainable.

The victims’ families in Russia, or anywhere, do not care about excuses from segments of security that each claim it did its job according to the rules. When responsibility is diffused in systemic failure, we may tweak procedures, assure ourselves that we have fixed the problem, while disregarding the truth that static security based on regulations isn’t enough. Risk management must be constantly assessed and depends on each of the participants accepting ownership and being actively involved in how resources are deployed.

Before we hear the words “systemic failure” again, we should take another look at regulation-based security and recognize that compliance with procedure is not enough when it comes to stopping terrorism threats.

Kip Hawley served as administrator of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration from 2005 until 2009.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

January 24, 2011

Aviation Security: Curbside to Cockpit

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on January 24, 2011

In a recent speech to the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security,  Transportation Security Administrator John S. Pistole discussed the need for aviation security to be “curbside to cockpit.”

Unfortunately, today’s attack at the Domodedovo Airport on the outskirts of Moscow (the busiest airport in Eastern Europe),  demonstrates the importance of a comprehensive approach to aviation security.  The attack today killed 29 people in a waiting area for arriving passengers, just outside the Customs area. Another 50 were hospitalized, including  35 who were listed in critical condition.  As in most airports, the area struck was outside the security zone.

In response to the attack, TSA stated  “We are monitoring the tragedy at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. As always, we are working with our international partners to share information regarding the latest terrorist tactics and security best practices.”

This response by TSA is a reasoned one that hopefully will prevail in the coming days over more reactionary ones.  Today’s incident demonstrates how complicated aviation security is, not only in the U.S., but internationally. Threats can be mitigated, but they must be done so through risk management and cooperation globally.   The creation of international standards and strengthened information and intelligence sharing for terrorist attacks are also both critical tools.

As the U.S.  further develops its “curbside to cockpit” vision for aviation security, it should recognize that security must be layered and that  VIPR teams, explosive detection technologies, canines, and behavioral patterns are all important parts of a security program.   Just as important is the recognition that not all travelers are the same and mechanisms for getting low-risk travelers in and out of airports quickly, while focusing government attention on those that are higher risk is critical to our future efforts.

November 22, 2010

The Pat Down …

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on November 22, 2010

In case you missed it, here is a link to Saturday Night Live’s skit on TSA’s enhanced security procedures.

The skit made light of what has spread quickly over the last week — protests from travelers, the White House, the left, and the right over the increased use of Advanced Imaging Technologies (AIT) and “pat-downs” for those who refuse to go through the full-body scanners or trigger the metal detectors.   The use of these procedures and the ensuing uproar have left TSA and its new Administrator John Pistole in a difficult position.  Yesterday Pistole seemed to back away from assertions he had made earlier in the day on television programs that TSA would not change its policies by issuing a statement that the agency would work to make screenings “as minimally invasive as possible.”

In many ways, TSA could not win in this situation.  On one hand, if it did not change “something” to make security stronger this holiday season and another “underwear bomber” appeared, then the agency would have been made into a political piñata.  On the other hand, its roll out of procedures that can be deemed invasive and burdensome and that make normal Joes and Jills who are flying feel like the bad guys hasn’t gained the agency any fans.

The truth of the matter is that as we get further away from 9/11 without a successful attack happening, TSA’s job becomes harder.  (Indeed, the same can be said of DHS as a whole).  Americans feel more secure and less worried that something is going to happen, especially when they are trying to survive economic hardships that face them day to day.  As a result, TSA must be more transparent on its security efforts and use a common sense litmus to what it employs.  Few, I would venture, would argue that we do not want TSA to protect us and that the agency must be capable of stopping the next terrorist who targets an airplane.  What should the agency do?

First, it should continue its efforts to develop more intelligent screening and security measures.  After a recent flight, it dawned on me that the agency’s efforts often only see what “good” travelers want them to see.  It is incumbent on the traveler, for example, to remove his liquids, his computer, and take off his jackets and shoes before going through security.   Sometimes people forget to remove their liquids and nothing happens.  Most of us know of some travelers who routinely ignore the liquids out mandate and still have not been stopped.  Other times, some of the practices leave us scratching our heads.  For example, I recently traveled with a three month old whose booties had to be removed because they counted as shoes.  As someone who has worked on homeland security issues, I know why many of these practices exist but I still wonder how we can make things better so that the things we are protecting (the traveling public) are not left feeling as if they are the threat or worse, more threatened.  Investment in new technologies that can scan our bags for liquids or allow us to leave our shoes on would go a along way. Of course, the implementation of emerging technologies and measures such as profiling will not likely be without criticism.  The deployment of AIT machines have demonstrated that.

Second, TSA should embrace programs such as  domestic registered traveler programs that have a security component and allow those travelers who are a minimal security risk to pay a fee, submit to a  background check, and go through an enhanced security checkpoint experience.

Third, TSA should heed the recommendations of the Inspector General last week in its report, Transportation Security Administration’s Management of Its Screening Workforce Training Program Can Be Improved, and ensure that screeners receive thorough and consistent training.  A number of the “horror stories” reported about TSA’s screening procedures over the past several days do not stem from the new procedures per se but from mistakes made by TSA officers.  For example, Administrator Pistole told “Good Morning America” this morning that at least one screening went too far when an officer reached insider’s a traveler’s underwear.  Stories of forced removals of prosthetics and breakage of urostomy bags also demonstrate the need for good training.

Fourth, Congress needs to help TSA out by partnering with the agency and not playing out its efforts via the news cycle and blogs.  TSA has nearly an impossible task and it could use some constructive help in coming up with long-term solutions and not being forced into reactionary positions.

Last, the American people can help TSA out by being patient yet diligent.  TSA is tasked with assuring that we mitigate as many risks as possible to ensure that we avoid another 9/11.  Sometimes it might not be able to share threat information with the public because it is protecting its information sharing mechanisms or needs to continue its investigation.  While we should hold a common sense test to the agency, we should give it some leeway to do its job.

Recent aviation security posts

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 22, 2010

Several thousand new readers accessed HLSWatch on Sunday. You are clearly interested in TSA-related information. Following are several recent HLSWatch posts by a range of writers. You can view the entire aviation security archives by selecting the term from among the categories to the immediate right.

If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested by Dee Walker

The perfect citizen by S. Francis Thorn

Why did the land of the free and the home of the brave chicken out? by Christopher Bellavita

Binary explosivesby Mark Chubb

The Operation was a failure, but the patient lived by Christopher Bellavita

The week (year?) in aviation by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan

Vulnerability to various viruses and other poisonous ooze by Philip J. Palin

November 19, 2010

Vulnerability to various viruses and other poisonous ooze

Filed under: Aviation Security,Biosecurity,Cybersecurity,Radicalization — by Philip J. Palin on November 19, 2010

The re-introduction of cholera to Haiti — the US and Dominican Republic — is a huge step backward in a century long effort to corner, contain, and eliminate the highly infective and deadly disease.  The precise cause of the outbreak is not yet known, but experts have said the simple absence of hand soap has considerably accelerated the spread of the bacteria that causes the disease.

This week for the first time in seven years a human case of Avian Influenza was confirmed in Hong Kong.  But already this year there have been 22 confirmed cases and nine deaths in Egypt and seven cases and two deaths in Vietnam.  Most epidemiologists continue to consider the world past-due for a serious pandemic. The Avian H5N1 virus is thought to be the most likely source.

Last year’s Swine Flu or H1N1 pandemic should have been — and in some ways was — a fantastic real-world exercise for pandemic preparedness.  We were lucky the particular virus was fairly low-grade.  Our weaknesses were exposed, but the consequences were modest.  But from what I can see, the less-than-dire consequences of H1N1 may have suppressed personal and institutional preparedness for H5N1 or other potential strains of pandemic influenza.

Wednesday a series of cyber specialists told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the Stuxnet Wormhas viral capabilities. “What makes Stuxnet unique is that it uses a variety of previously seen individual cyber attack techniques, tactics, and procedures, automates them, and hides its presence so that the operator and the system have no reason to suspect that any malicious activity is occurring,” according to Sean P. McGurk, acting director of the DHS National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center.

But while Stuxnet is visciously sophisticated once it infects a system, prevention measures are classic.  According to PC Magazine these include, “Deploy an anti-malware solution; watch out for vendor security notifications and alerts, and apply patches; ensure that users are updated via security education and awareness programs; and be aware of their assets.”  Attention and discipline are the most important preventive measures.

A Russian biologist, Dmitry Ivanovsky, discovered viruses in the late 19th century.  The word virus has a Latin origin that usually referred to a poisonous ooze.  

Virus is closely related to the Latin virulentus.  The English “virulent” also means poisonous, but today is probably more often used for anything that is extremely infective and rapidly spreading. Especially in this context, it has made sense to use the biological term for malicious computer code and now for anything digital that is rapidly consumed.

The John Tyner — “don’t touch my junk” — video and narrative has certainly gone viral.  I am disgusted by it.  The combination of a puerile wanna-be passenger and a couple of aggressively bureaucratic TSA agents has certainly produced a poisonous ooze of invective going every which way. 

Like soap in Haiti and disciplined attention with our computers, a reasonable dose of recognizing the humanity of one another might have avoided the entire drama. 

In regard to transportation security, there are meaningful issues of privacy and security that deserve serious consideration. In their Tuesday post Chris Bellavita and Dee Walker outlined several.  Most persuasive to me is that TSA is too often  preoccupied with going through the motions.  They need our help, as informed and active citizens, to focus on delivering real security value.

But John Tyner is no Rosa Parks.  Neither are the two slightly obnoxious TSA agents a latter day Sheriff Clark and Governor Wallace. John Tyner missing his plane is no Bloody Sunday.

What I perceive in most — not all — reactions to the John Tyner incident is an epidemic of self-righteous rage.  I saw similar symptoms yesterday on the streets of Baltimore.  I can’t always flip the channel quickly enough to miss it on television.  I hear it on radio talk shows and in the halls of Congress.  I don’t know the epidemic’s source, but the destruction caused is easy enough to see.

I can understand the rage of some Haitians — ten months after the earthquake, two weeks after being flooded out of their tents and shanties, and now told the water on which they depend is deadly — in some moments I share their rage. 

But how do we diagnose — or treat — the rage of  the well-fed and warmly housed?  There seems to be some virus attacking our sense of relationship with one another, of being Americans together, of our shared humanity.

In 1992 the rap metal band Rage Against the Machine wrote what seems to have become the angry anthem of those from the left, right, and plenty in the middle:

I’ve got no patience now
So sick of complacence now
I’ve got no patience now
So sick of complacence now
Sick of sick of sick of sick of you
Time has come to pay…
Know your enemy!

It is an epidemic: virulent, poisonous, and just as deadly as any other infection.

November 16, 2010

“If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.”

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 16, 2010

It’s not exactly, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But somehow, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested” may be a fitting candidate for a 21st century analog to Patrick Henry’s cry.

John Tyner – the man who uttered these words — has become the most recent recruit to the growing “Why is TSA doing these things to us?” army of apparently regular people.

If you have not read about his Saturday morning encounter with TSA at the San Diego International Airport, or watched the now viral youtube video of the episode, you can learn about it here: http://johnnyedge.blogspot.com/2010/11/these-events-took-place-roughly-between.html

Every time there is one of these episodes – and they’ve increased since the implementation of the new “enhanced patdown procedures” [note to marketing: lose the “enhanced” modifier.  The reminder of “enhanced interrogation” is too creepy.]

Restart – Every time there is one of these episodes, it is always interesting to read the comments section of the web article or blog post.  Almost without exception the comments fall into one of two categories:

1.    Dear sir/madam: You are a jerk.  No one is above the law.  Rules are rules.  I want to fly in safety.  The  procedures are for our safety. If you don’t want to follow the rules, don’t fly.

2.    Dear sir/madam: You are a hero.  The rules are stupid.  They violate the 4th amendment.  They have nothing to do with security. What a waste of money.  TSA has not caught one terrorist.  This is how the Nazis got people to behave.  If people don’t want to put liberty ahead of a false security, they shouldn’t fly.

Osama and his buddies must be in whatever passes for hysterics in his gang over our inability to get out of the trap he set: everyone has to prove they are not a terrorist before they can fly.

Months ago, Dee Walker wrote in this blog about her archetypal difficulties with TSA.  In one of her posts, she noted that the “patdowns” she experienced were cursory at best, and clearly ineffective.

I wondered what she thought about the new enhanced procedures.

Here’s what she wrote.  (She wrote this before the Tyner incident)


Passengers: targets or threats?

The very same week that the  TSA announces a change in its check point pat-down protocols, a terrorist in Yemen with a known proclivity for making bombs reminds us, yet again, that passengers are more likely targets than threats.

To re-cap, last month, TSA promised an impending “change” in the process screeners use to engage passengers who request a pat-down in lieu of passing through the great privacy compromiser, AKA  full-body imaging devices.  At the time of the announcement, TSA spokesperson declined further comment, a strategic lapse, no doubt, intended to generate buzz and chatter.  The next day, we learned that pat-downs would become more invasive to travelers who request them.

I have previously noted that the pat-downs engaged by TSA screeners are neither thorough, nor are they effective.  Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent experiences at BWI  and Providence airports indicate this is still the case, but he also all but confirms that the TSA seeks to embarrass and intimidate passengers into compliance with the body-scanner process.

Since I have complained repeatedly about the nature and lack of accountability inherent in random selections for additional screening, you would think that I would be happy with a process like full body-imaging, that consistently impacts all travelers.  I am anything but happy.  In fact, I am outraged and it would appear I have much good company.

The touch that humiliates

The new search protocol, according to Goldberg, requires screeners “utilize a sliding motion” to more thoroughly check the crotch area of travelers; not, apparently, for the purpose of finding weapons, but with the main intent of getting travelers  “into the machines.”  In other words, it increase the likelihood of individualized, public humiliation in order to gain mass compliance.

If this news does not disturb you, I am not surprised. If this news disturbs you, then you have only yourself to blame.

We brave Americans are nothing but little sheep when it comes to air travel, me included.  We continue to think that if we cooperate, if we put our heads down while we raise our arms as directed, we will be safe.  Al Qaeda keeps trying to tell us how wrong we are, but we are not listening to them, again.  We are too busy listening to TSA screeners yell at us to remove our shoes and laptops.  Our liquids and gels are seized as we pass en route to our overcrowded seats, positioned both invisibly and mere feet above tons of unscreened and unsafe cargo.

In the most recent event, cargo that was suspected of containing a bomb, had been searched and cleared.  Agents had to be told specifically to look for computer printers before finding what ended up being a bomb that was strong enough to bring down the cargo plane in which it was being transported.   But TSA wants to more thoroughly search our crotches?

I continue to wonder when, as travelers, we will rise in protest of procedures that continue to compromise not just our privacy, but our safety as well.  We  routinely and very passively submit to a seriously flawed screening process, that has one purpose: Efficiency.

On time departures vs. air travel safety

Think about it for just a moment and reflect upon your own experiences.  On the whole, we get really mad when our planes are late, but we are not silent about this unforgivable sin. Far from it.  We complain to our friends and on travel websites about missed meetings.  When we miss connecting flights we demand to be compensated, per federal law.  We loudly demand free hotel rooms when blizzards hit as predicted days in advance.   We want Congress to pass a bill of rights for air passengers that reduce our collective risk of sitting on a tarmac.  Meanwhile, important legislation regarding screening rates for cargo has been largely ignored, and this failure has been met with the most reliable characteristic of US travelers when it comes to safety: silence.

As consumers and travelers, we are solely to blame for the current, porous state of air travel safety.  We have allowed TSA to engage a screening process that focuses its sights on us, and we have quietly acquiesced, all in the hopes that we arrive at our destinations on-time and under-budget.  We, the travelers, have failed to insist upon a more holistic screening process that does not separate passengers from the rest of the plane, its contents, its location, its destination and passenger roster.    In essence, passenger screening is the low-hanging fruit of air travel safety.

Had the al Qaeda bomb attacks launched a few weeks ago been successful, would we now have the courage to ask about the effectiveness of traveler screening?  I suspect not.  In fact, I fear the opposite would be likely.  Passenger screening would be lauded as successful, which, it would be argued, forced al Qaeda to attack asymmetrically using the cargo.

We would then (and very likely will yet), engage in some knee-jerk response designed to heighten perceptions of safety while not unduly compromising the efficiency of moving cargo, because that costs money, and those costs will be passed onto us, the passengers.  More safe cargo means more expensive tickets.  We tend to be pretty vocal about how much we don’t want that.

Revamp the entire air travel system

Sadly, no amount of silence will make us safe.  Remember, the printer cartridge plots were not foiled by screening or by searching.  They were foiled by intelligence.  The computer bombs were interdicted by hard work on the ground in Yemen and quick work facilitated by meaningful communication among agents of cooperating nations.  Can we not reasonably expect some of these characteristics to transfer to more effective passenger screening methodologies?

Passenger screening as currently practiced is a complete waste of time if there are bombs in the cargo hold.  Screening and searching cargo cannot currently be accomplished in a meaningful and cost-effective manner.  A more holistic approach to air travel safety is needed to isolate threats, whether those threats be borne by passengers or cargo.  The more time and resources we waste kidding ourselves that what we are doing is working is more time and money  wasted.   Al Qaeda has demonstrated consistent focus on its goals, and it is only a matter of time before some bloody success is again realized.  That success might be on board a plane that is in the sky today.

Are US travelers, as a group, as capable as al Qaeda?  What if, on one given day, every single traveler passing through US airports refused to enter the body-scanner as a means of protest to the current state of our system?  Would our leaders then understand that we are serious about demanding a revamped air travel safety system?

Are we serious or are we kidding ourselves, still?

How to break the chain of intimidation

Over the course of the past two years, I have been selected for secondary screening roughly forty percent of the time I fly.   I am always polite, but, for many reasons,  I never cooperate with secondary screening requests.   Almost predictably, given my experience, I got “randomly” selected for additional screening, yet again, a few days ago.  This time, I was passing through Tampa International Airport.

After informing the screener that I would not enter the body scanner, she pointedly informed me that TSA had recently implemented new pat-down standards that would include a search of the “crotch area”.  I had to wait five minutes to be searched, and then immediately engaged a second screener regarding these “new” techniques.  I asked this screener how much training each member of TSA received on execution of the new pat-down techniques.  She asked me why I wanted to know and said she was just trying to do a pat-down (as in, please don’t ask me anything, I am just trying to do my job here).  I told her that I was a police officer (I did not indicate I was retired) and was very interested in the level and intensity of training on the new pat-down standards.

She looked a little unsure of herself and told me she had received “a day” of training.  I asked her if TSA would verify for me that each trainer received a full day of training on the new techniques.  She then stated that the amount of training varied by airport and by class size.  I then asked her how many people had been in her class and she told me that if I had questions, I could ask the supervisors after she completed her search.  I looked her dead in the eyes and asked why she would not answer a very simple question, and once I promised it would be my last question, she told me that five people had been in her class.

Generally, the pat-down did not feel any different from the last half dozen pat-downs I have experienced, and it was equally ineffective as a pat-down.  I suspect that the goal was not to interdict weapons or contraband, but to elevate the level of embarrassment felt by those of us who refuse to enter the body scanner. Yet again, that had no effect upon me.  What felt markedly different this trip was how very forcefully informed I was by the first screener, and how utterly intimidated the second screener appeared by my inquiries, coupled with her apparent willingness to offer less than accurate information.

I keep getting back to wondering how we let this happen.  TSA is an agency out of control, and likely the greatest single sources of stress for travelers today. Further, screener hostility toward inquiries like mine further exacerbates my frustration and my concern for our freedom.  I have read the signs that tell me to engage the screeners, but when I do, I am met with suspicion, if not by overt hostility.  We, the people, have instilled great discretion in TSA, and yet there seems to be absolutely no desire by us to achieve accountability for the type of decisions that are made.  Why am I so routinely selected for additional “random” screening?  Why is one screener permitted to completely ignore my inquiries, when other screeners provide answers?  Why are screeners allowed to provide incorrect information?  Why have my inquiries generated an interview from behavioral detection experts, directed there to ascertain what my “problem is”?

Democracy requires information in order to work, and one of the best ways to get information is to ask questions.  Should screeners be allowed to provide inaccurate information?  Should screeners be permitted to refuse to provide me information on processes that are not classified as secret?  Should the mere act of me asking for information be punishable by additional screening?  My experience indicates, sadly yes, across the board.

I do not seek out the attention that TSA showers upon me, but when they are so kind to make me the star of their show, I think I deserve answers to reasonable questions, just as I deserve to be told why a particular question is not reasonable.  The mere act of inquiring should not generate retaliatory actions, like those I experienced in Memphis.

Traveler todo list

I have created a list of to-do’s for travelers who, like me, are fed up with the inconsistency and lack of accountability demonstrated by TSA.  I have attempted to ensure that the guidance I provide is consistent with the guidance that TSA provides.  My suggestions offer you the opportunity to gain some level of accountability:

Engage Your Screener: If you are selected for additional screening, or a level of screening that is clearly different from the majority of travelers around you, immediately ask why you were selected.  TSA Screeners will try to rush or herd you into the body scanner if you are not careful. You must immediately state that you will not enter the scanner.  You will be told about the new and more thorough pat down techniques that are being used and will again be offered the “choice” of going through the body scanner or the pat down,  Again, affirmatively state that you will not enter the body scanner.  Then prepare for all eyes to be upon you as the screener states loudly into their radio “We have a refusal”.  Do not be worried and do not allow yourself to be cajoled.  This is just another link in the chain of intimidation.

After you are told yours was a ‘random’ selection, try to note who is “randomly” selected immediately after you. If it is a person of the same race or gender as you are, ask the screener whether those characteristics were relevant to your selection.  Also note the name of the person who is providing information to you.  I strongly encourage you to be polite, and to address the person by their name, as in “Okay,  Ms. Jones, I am waiting right here until you tell me where to go.”  Or, Yes, Mr. Smith, I will remove everything from my pockets”.  Being rude just makes a bad situation worse, and frankly it is not the screeners fault that they are asked to do stupid things. Being rude will also reduce the likelihood that your questions will be answered.  Sometimes, just asking the questions can generate additional attention, and may get you an interview with a behavioral detection officer (BDO).

As you are shuttled to the side or down the middle, you may be asked whether you want to be screened in private.  I was not given that option in Tampa, which is fine because I strongly urge you to decline private screening. The more eyes on what is happening to you, the better for you.  I believe most screeners are highly uncomfortable with the new pat-down procedures and likely resent people like me, who refuse to enter the scanner.  They are far less likely to try to retaliate against you with other people watching.

Do not be afraid to ask to speak to a supervisor.  If reasonable questions are not answered, you should seek answers from the people in the booth.  Take down names, especially when employees of TSA refuse to answer your questions.  Try to also remember to ask why your questions are not being answered.  Be prepared for a general lack of cooperation and remember that TSA wants to get you into and out of the security experience quickly.   The quality of your interaction is far less important.

Finally, follow up.  Make friends, family and acquaintances aware of your experiences and contact TSA.  In his book, Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000 Pete Blackshaw reminds us that in today’s world, the customer is king and queen.

It is time for each of us to remind TSA of that very same thing.

November 2, 2010

The perfect citizen?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Technology for HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on November 2, 2010

Today’s guest blogger is S. Francis Thorn.  Thorn teaches homeland security at a university in the United States.  He has a military and intelligence background.   This is his first post for Homeland Security Watch.


First off, the “picture” is fake. It is digitally manufactured.

This “art” is taken from a Wired.com article regarding promotional marketing for a medical imaging company.  With technology being so pervasive, dare I say promiscuous, it may be more common to see medical imaging technology -or technology in general – being cross-pollinated with other disciplines for different uses. After all, if GPS is good for munitions finding their target, it is also good for helping people find the nearest hospital.

That said, the recent concerns surrounding TSA screening techniques is an indication further discussion is necessary, especially as it relates to the pervasive use of technology and its impact on privacy. When a commercial airline pilot is willing to risk his job – during one of the worst economic periods in American history – over TSA screening techniques, this pilot may be saying ‘I’m no longer willing to ride in the back of the bus.’ And should we blame him? TSA itself has abused the technology.

Additionally, how much confidence does DHS/TSA leadership inspire when a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ security model is projected?

At a recent event at JKF International airport, where Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano was showcasing the new Advanced Imaging Technology (ATI), she apparently did not participate in demonstrating the efficacy of the technology, but instead used “volunteers.”

But let’s not skirt the main issue – which is protecting the American flyer from terrorism. Let there be no doubt, the threat is real.

In the context of threats to U.S. Airlines, there may be some common denominators – like citizenship (…or the citizenship of packages). Poor Juan Williams…

Flight 175:

Marwan al-Shehhi (United Arab Emirates)

Fayez Ahmad (United Arab Emirates)

Mohald al-Shehri (Saudi Arabia)

Hamza al-Ghamdi (Saudi Arabia)

Ahmed al-Ghamdi (Saudi Arabia)

Flight 11:

Mohamed Atta (Egypt)

Walid al-Shehri (Saudi Arabia)

Wail al-Shehri (Saudi Arabia)

Abd al-Aziz al-Umari (Saudi Arabia)

Satam al-Suqami (Saudi Arabia)

Flight 77:

Hani Hanjur (Saudi Arabia)

Khalid al-Mihdhar (Saudi Arabia)

Majid Muqid (Saudi Arabia)

Nawaf al-Hamzi (Saudi Arabia)

Salem al-Hamzi (Saudi Arabia)

Flight 93:

Ziad Jarrahi (Lebanon)

Ahmad al-haznawi (Saudi Arabia)

Ahmad al-nami (Saudi Arabia)

Saeed Alghamdi (Saudi Arabia)

Flight 63:

Richard Reid (Great Britain)

Flight 253:

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Nigeria)

True, American’s can be radicalized domestically and access various transportation systems – but they can also join the U.S. Army (here and here) or get invited to speak at Pentagon luncheons….

One challenge with aviation security — as last week’s air cargo incident illustrated — is that there is a significant international aspect. The U.S. has integrated itself into the international system (i.e. globalization) to such an extent that external security threats are having an impact on internal freedoms. In the context of aviation security and its affect on privacy, the conversation regarding America’s relationship with the international community has been anemic.

For example, if individuals are traveling from overseas to kill Americans, is it appropriate to revisit programs like our visa wavier program before placing tighter security restrictions on the internal movements of American Citizens? Internationalism, in many ways, is antithetical to the American ethos.

For those curious about how America might interact with the global community, President George Washington’s Farewell Address is a necessary primer. As a suggestion, pay particular attention to Washington’s council “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Essentially, with certain caveats, Washington’s prescription for preserving American freedom is for the United States to interact with the global community in the most detached manner possible.

In the context of America’s approach to aviation security or National/Homeland Security writ large (i.e. international security partnerships/alliances/collaboration), it seems a question we need to answer as a nation is – whether Washington’s council is relevant or obsolete?

For those who consider Washington’s council is obsolete – strike a pose.

November 1, 2010

Yemeni package threat: Aggregating the reports

Filed under: Aviation Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 1, 2010

There are plenty of breaking news reports on the  packages found late Thursday, October 29.  Following are a few of the more detailed and helpful I have seen.  Many of these reports will be updated in the hours ahead.  (This post originated at 5:30 Eastern on Friday, October 30.)


September “dry run” confirmed (BBC)

Yemen launches manhunt for bomber (Reuters)

British special forces part of Yemen manhunt (Telegraph UK)  Chief of British Defence Staff says military intervention in Yemen “might be” necessary (Telegraph UK)

Yemen indicts al-Awlaki (AFP)


The BBC is claiming  official confirmation that the source of information on the Yemeni package plot is a a former Guantanamo detainee.

On October 15 AFP reported the man had reached out to Saudi authorities.

SUNDAY UPDATE (At the request of Bill Cumming I am continuing the thread, although at a reduced pace.)

Suspect arrested in Yemen (Telegraph UK) (Student is thought to have be source of packages)

Likely bombmaker identified (Telegraph UK) (Same technician suspected in Christmas Day and other attempted bombings)

Awlaki identified as likely “mastermind” (Guardian UK)  (Includes reporting on likely escalation of US operations originating in Yemen.)

Bomb points to Al Qaeda according to Dubai police (Khaleej Times Dubai)


PETN confirmed as explosive (BBC)

Detailed description of IED found at Dubai (Telegraph UK)

Yemen packages expose gaps in air cargo screening (National Journal)

Secretary Napolitano affirms apparent AQ connection (ABC News, Good Morning America)

In June the GAO updated its report on Air Cargo Screening

In June the Council on Foreign Relations provided a helpful update on the situation in Yemen: http://www.cfr.org/publication/9369/islamist_radicalism_in_yemen.html


Cargo plane bomb alert: explosive devices ‘designed to harm US synagogues’  (Telegraph UK)

Terror alert: how the hunt for the packages unfolded (Guardian UK)  (Nice overview of the timetable)

 Obama Says Explosives Were U.S. Bound (New York Times)

Gibbs and Brennan Brief on Terrorism Threat (Politico)

Video of the President’s statement on the Yemeni packages (Washington Post) (after an advertisement) and the complete Post story.  And now there’s a transcript of the President’s statement from the Post.

Packages bound for Chicago synagogues (Chicago Tribune) (One of the synagogues is across the street from the Obama’s southside home.)

Yemen Terror Alert (BBC) (Helpful side-bar pieces on the broader context in Yemen)

Statement from UPS on investigation (UPS)

Statement from Fedex on investigation (Fedex)

Reuters seems to have the best contacts on site in Dubai, where one of the suspicious devices was found.  So far not much is being reported but you might check the link for updates: Package found in Dubai at lab for tests.  The packages originated in Yemen where Reuters also seems to be the most likely candidate to tell us something, if something worth telling is found: Yemen investigating suspicious packages.

August 24, 2010

“Why did the land of the free and the brave chicken out?”

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christopher Bellavita on August 24, 2010

In 2008, Fred Gevalt and his daughter Emelie flew around the country trying to find out why Americans tolerate the growing security state.

“We wanted to know why did the land of the free and the brave chicken out,” he told me.

The Gevalts focused especially on what happens at airports under the name of security.   They shared what they learned in a 94 minute film titled “Please Remove Your Shoes.”

You can see excerpts and get more information about the film and the people who made it by going to www.pleaseremoveyourshoesmovie.com.  Salon has a review here;  SecurityInfoWatch has a very thorough review here; the Wall Street Journal review is here, and the Washington Post review is here.


On the surface, the film appears to be about the security ineptitude of the FAA from the late 1980s through 2001 and the continuing problems of its genetically related TSA offspring.  The story is told through the eyes of whistleblowers, a few members of congress, newspaper and television reporters, and several other people in and around aviation security.

The film includes a review of several post 9/11 incidents that raise questions about the effectiveness of TSA and the safety of air travel.  It has an extended excerpt of Steven Bierfeldt’s chilling (and recorded) interaction in March 2009 with TSA and law enforcement officials at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport: was this reasonable suspicion or abuse of authority?


The film is not a political movie in a hatchet job way.  It is a political movie in the sense that it asks how much we are willing to put up with in the name of security; how we balance threat against consequences.

One of the people in the movie puts it this way:

“By sewing fear, Jihadist wield power out of all proportion to their numbers.  They threaten not just lives, but a way of life; fostering a paranoid mindset in which innocent travelers accept being bullied, harassed, and stripped of their constitutional rights. ….  [We]  still don’t have a system that is rational, effective and proportionate to the threat.  We continue to sacrifice our resources and freedoms for nothing more than an elaborate facade of security.”


In my view, the film’s TSA focus is as much macguffin as minotaur.  A central current of the film is how security has become a national shibboleth, something too sacred to question.

“Security has become too hot to touch,” Gevalt said during an interview.

“Congress is afraid to touch it. They just have to support it ad infinitum.  This is what frightens me.  The prospective budget for [security] is infinite.  It’s unbelievable.  And TSA is right in there.  The economy stinks. And we’ve got a bunch of guys [TSA] who, understandably, want to keep their jobs, hire more people, get bigger, get more important, get recognized.”

Gevalt says he and the others responsible for the movie have more to say than maybe what the film actually portrays.

“I’m not apologizing for it.  I think it’s a damn good movie.  But I think it’s necessary first to demonstrate that in many, many respects the system does not work. …. There’s a kind of naive expectation by the public that there is a statistical increase in [aviation security] because of TSA and homeland security.  And I just don’t think that’s true.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily the fault of TSA entirely.  I think it’s partly a function of the nature of the beast.  When you stop and think that we as a country lose 40,000 people a year to car accidents, 120,000 people a year to alcohol, and half a million to cigarette smoke — we haven’t forfeited all our personal liberties and we haven’t put ourselves into national bankruptcy over those three topics.  Yet look what we’re [spending] on security.

“The average is something like 104 people per annum from 1973 through 2001, including 9/11, that have died [from] terrorism [in the US].  That’s an extraordinary number, and I’m not going to suggest to the families of the 9/11 victims that [it’s not important].  But from a position of leadership, why are we doing this?  This is self flagellation.

“I think the bigger question is why are we throwing all this [security] money against the wall, with all the attendant employees, and gadgets, and policies and everything that comes with it.  It’s nuts.  It’s absolutely nuts.

That’s part of why I spent a good hunk of my nest egg [Gevalt financed the film himself] because I think we at least owe it to ourselves to think about it and talk about it.”

How does Gevalt think we can get out of the war on terror trap?

“Well, I think we start by looking at the statistical probabilities of death, doom and destruction right in the eye and try to make a cold blooded decision.”

In the world of homeland security, this is called risk management.

“But you can’t expect people in the business like TSA to think this way because it fundamentally undercuts what they are doing.”

I started to ask him if he thought TSA had improved over the years.  The movie closes with a dozen recommendations for improving aviation security.  Many have been implemented already.  The people in DHS I spoke with say the film mostly reports old news.

But whether TSA has improved or not is irrelevant to the larger point Gevalt is making.

“They probably have improved, but it’s kind of like saying ‘We need to fix this car over here, so we got a basketball team to help do it.  Don’t you think their drop shot is better than it used to be?’”


Why did Gevalt make this movie?  What does he hope it accomplishes?

“My hope is that someone in Washington knows what the point of all this is.  What are we doing here, at the strategic level?  What are we looking for?  What are we supposed to do?  What are we not supposed to do?  It would strike me that the biggest single problem that faces this agency [TSA] is whether or not they are operating as a deterrent or … to interdict.  Are they there to stop [a terrorist] or are they just there to shoe them away and have them go bomb the subway or something?”

The people at TSA I know are as serious about making sure flying is safe as are the whistleblowers and other critics in the movie.

Gevalt acknowledges that, but…

“How much are you willing to spend, how much should the government spend, how much does it make sense to spend in terms of time, employees, money, everything that costs you to build this kind of scarecrow?


“I gather you liked the movie?” Gevalt asked me at the end of the interview
“It’s not a movie you like or you don’t like,” I said.  “It’s a movie that you have to think about.”
“I’m glad it had that effect,” Gevalt said.  “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

May 10, 2010

Did DHS Screw Up “Again” By Letting the Times Square Bomber on a Plane?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on May 10, 2010

This post — written by a colleague — should have been posted on Friday, May 7th.  For a several reasons, it was not posted. However, the point the author makes is still valid.


There were plenty of articles and comments over the past few days stating that once again DHS did not fulfill its responsibilities of keeping bad people out of an otherwise sterile security environment.

As the story goes, DHS is to be blamed for allowing the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, to board the plane thus putting the flight at risk or allowing him the opportunity to make an escape to freedom. Unfortunately, in most instances DHS has become the Nation’s equivalent of an inflatable punching bag when all manner of safety and security activities go awry. Such criticism is offered by the politically disingenuous intelligencia and easily accepted by the media and uninformed masses.

Might there be another way to assess the situation?

Suppose there were compelling intelligence collection, investigative, and prosecutorial reasons to allow the suspect to continue with his plan (attempting to depart the country) up until he was about to leave a “positively controlled” environment.

During Tuesday’s press conference, AG Holder responded to the “did Shahzad almost get away” question by stating “I was aware of the tracking that was going on and was never in fear of losing him.”

Might this be another example of the intelligence collection-safeguarding society-prosecutorial discretion tension that occurs almost daily when trying to assess whether to arrest and shut down activities perceived to be related to terrorism, contrasted to the need to allow the bad actors to continue with their plans for purposes of gaining a better contextual understanding of the plot and associated conspirators?

Or, as Paul Harvey suggests, possibly there is more to the story than meets the eye: FBI Team ‘Lost’ Suspected Times Square Bomber During Crucial Hours

In either case, whether this was a well orchestrated intelligence collection operation or, as the web article above notes, the FBI did lose Shahzad in the waning hours of the manhunt, it appears DHS should be praised, not excoriated, for being an effective safeguard of last resort.

As the article notes, Shahzad was first added to the no fly list at noon on Monday (May 3rd). A decision and job not of DHS’ doing.

Once DHS officials became aware he was on the plane, based on a routine check of the flight manifest by CBP officials, procedures were followed and the system was implemented as designed.

Maybe this incident has highlighted how the DHS should be viewed in most safety and security settings: the Nation’s safeguard of last resort.

April 8, 2010

First reports about a 20-something, nicotine-addicted, sandal-wearing, low-level diplomat are usually wrong

Filed under: Aviation Security,Border Security,General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on April 8, 2010

I was going to write about the future of homeland security today.  But the present got in the way.


The story is still unfolding. But as I write this late on April 7th, here is the timeline of what the social network and other media were/are reporting.

Between 6 and 7 PM, Pacific Time

  • A passenger attempted to light an explosive device on board an aircraft from Washington to Denver, sources tell NBC News
  • Update: Air marshals subdued passenger on Denver-bound 757 jet. Plane is parked in remote area of airport – NBC News
  • Update: Passenger detained after ‘shoe bomb’ incident aboard Denver-bound plane is identified as Qatari diplomat – ABC News

Between 7 and 8 PM, Pacific Time

  • Update: Unclear if passenger tied to shoe incident aboard Denver-bound flight had explosives – NBC News

Between 8 and 9 PM, Pacific Time

  • Update: Qatar diplomat subdued on United flight may have been smoking in bathroom – NBC News

Between 9 and 10 PM, Pacific Time

From the Denver Post, reported by Felisa Cardona and Jeffrey Leib :

A United Airlines flight from Washington was escorted by fighter jets to Denver International Airport after a diplomat on board from Qatar may have tried to light his shoes on fire….

More than two hours after the incident, it still wasn’t clear whether the incident was an actual threat or a misunderstanding because al-Modadi attempted to smoke a cigarette on the plane, according to numerous law enforcement sources….

ABC News and other outlets reported that no explosives have been found on the plane, which was still being searched at 9:45 p.m…

Approximately 25 minutes outside of Denver the air marshal, who was not immediately identified, confronted al-Modadi after smelling smoke.

From NBC

…Federal officials told NBC News that a half hour before the jet landed, a flight attendant smelled smoke just as a passenger was coming out of a restroom and alerted an air marshal. The marshal confronted the man, and there were initial reports that the man said he was trying to light his shoe.

But NBC News reported that the man said he was putting out a cigarette, which he smoked in the restroom, on the sole of his shoe.

No explosives were found on the man, and a search of the plane with bomb-detecting dogs also turned up no explosives. And a federal official said the man was wearing sandals….

From the AP (by writers Eileen Sullivan, Matthew Lee, Matt Apuzzo, Joan Lowy, Pauline Jelinek and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Judith Kohler and David Zalubowski in Denver)

A Qatari diplomat trying to sneak a smoke in an airplane bathroom sparked a bomb scare Wednesday night on a flight from Washington to Denver, with fighter jets scrambled and law enforcement put on high alert, officials said.

No explosives were found on the man, and officials do not believe he was trying to harm anyone, according to a senior law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity…

An Arab diplomat briefed on the matter identified the diplomat as Mohammed Al-Madadi.

Two law enforcement officials said investigators were told the man was asked about the smell of smoke in the bathroom and he made a joke that he had been trying to light his shoes — an apparent reference to the 2001 so-called ”shoe bomber” Richard Reid…

A senior State Department official said the agency was aware of the tentative identification of the man as a Qatari diplomat and that there would be ”consequences, diplomatic and otherwise” if he had committed a crime.

The latest edition of department’s Diplomatic List, a registry of foreign diplomats working in the United States, identifies a man named Mohammed Yaaqob Y.M. Al-Madadi as the third secretary for the Qatari Embassy in Washington. Third secretary is a relatively low-ranking position at any diplomatic post and it was not immediately clear what his responsibilities would have been.

Foreign diplomats in the United States, like American diplomats posted abroad, have broad immunity from prosecution. The official said if the man’s identity as a Qatari diplomat was confirmed and if it was found that he may have committed a crime, U.S. authorities would have to decide whether to ask Qatar to waive his diplomatic immunity so he could be charged and tried. Qatar could decline, the official said, and the man would likely be expelled from the United States.

Qatar, about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, is an oil- and gas-rich monarchy and close U.S. ally of about 1.4 million people on the Arabian peninsula, surrounded by three sides by the Persian Gulf and to the south by Saudi Arabia…..

From the  innocuously uninformative TSA site

TSA Statement on United Flight 663
News & Happenings

On Wednesday, April 7 TSA responded to an incident on board United Airlines flight 663 from DCA to DEN after Federal Air Marshals responded to a passenger causing a disturbance on board the aircraft. The flight landed safely at Denver International Airport at approximately 8:50 p.m. EDT.

Law enforcement and TSA responded to the scene and the passenger is currently being interviewed by law enforcement. All steps are being taken to ensure the safety of the traveling public.


By the time I wake up tomorrow, I’m guessing there will be a clearer picture of this currently bizarre incident.

Based on the evolving first reports, I go to sleep tonight thinking a 20-something, nicotine-addicted, sandal-wearing, low-level diplomat was smoking a cigarette in an airplane toilet-sink room.  He put out the smoke by grinding it into his shoe.  A flight attendant smelled smoke and notified a federal air marshal.  At that point, Mohammed Al-Madadi — if that is really his name — stopped enjoying what in the 1980s used to be called “the friendly skies.”

Airplane, shoes, smoke, Al-Madadi… the first reports write themselves.


What ripples — if any — will this event stir in homeland security?

Do passengers with diplomatic immunity create another vulnerability in the US aviation security system?

Will cigarettes now have to go into checked baggage?

Is health care reform to blame?

Is this yet one more example of how America is turning socialist?

What will the story line be that places blame for this event on Secretary Napolitano?


I wanted to write about the future of homeland security.  But the present is way too weird to be thinking about the future.

Maybe tomorrow.


Update: 20 seconds after I posted the above:


“Qatari diplomat who sparked bomb scare by trying to smoke aboard Denver-bound jet won’t face criminal charges, official tells AP”

Oh well, who knows whether that’s true or not.  First reports are almost always wrong.

March 26, 2010

Breaking News: Harding withdraws at TSA…

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on March 26, 2010

Despite what seemed like a rather smooth nomination hearing process this week, Retired Army Major General Robert Harding has withdrawn from consideration as the nominee for Administrator at the Transportation Security Administration.  Gen. Harding becomes the second nominee to withdraw his name from consideration.  Erroll Southers, formerly with the Los Angeles World Airport Police Department, withdrew his name in January 2010 amidst opposition from Republican lawmakers in Congress.

And the search for one of the nation’s most critical security jobs begins again…

March 16, 2010

Why I Hate Freedom

Filed under: Aviation Security,General Homeland Security — by Deirdre Walker on March 16, 2010

Dee Walker has appeared in Homeland Security Watch several times.  Her initial and subsequent posts about her experiences with the Transportation Security Administration continue to ripple. — Chris Bellavita


I was recently quoted in a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  The column was a re-hash of my on-going struggle with TSA.  I have struggled over many months to elevate the debate about TSA above the “why can’t I keep my water”  and “why does my grandma have to get out of her wheelchair” dialogue.  Apparently, my struggle has been in vain.

In a comment posted to Daniel Rubin’s column, a reader asked, “Why does Deirdre Walker hate freedom?”

Wow.  I didn’t know I hated freedom.  Then, I began to think about it and I realized, yup, I do hate freedom.

Here are my top 10 reasons: (Well, I was going to have 10, but since everyone in the public sector is cutting back, I’ll cut back to 5.)

  1. I am a hedonist. Freedom requires work and sacrifice.  As a former police officer, I worked rotating shifts, weekends, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s.  I worked midnights and then got up after two hours of sleep to sit in court all day, then returned to work the street a few hours later.  I worked snowstorms and tropical storms, undercover and sometimes unarmed in order to arrest drug dealers and pimps.  Later in my career, I jumped from bed at 2am or whenever the phone rang on my birthday, on Christmas and during vacations.  Until very late in my career, none of this felt less a privilege than a sacrifice.  Then I looked back at an adult life characterized by missed birthdays, funerals, family dinners and some seriously dysfunctional personal relationships.  Only then I realized what sacrifice looks like and more importantly, I understood what it feels like.  I don’t just speak of it.  I did it.  Generally, it kinda sucks.  It makes you older faster and more cynical than most.  I hate sacrifice, therefore, I must hate freedom.
  2. I am adventurous. Freedom, apparently, requires that we all have the same, safe perspective on freedom.  This apparently means neither questioning authority nor challenging conventional wisdom (an oxymoron that I love).  Clearly, those irritating activities were good enough for our Founding Mothers and Fathers, but why should I get involved?  I have built a life and career on asking “why” and challenging the answers I received.  That is how, I think, we step into the abyss of change.  Change, it seems, is a threat to freedom.  I love change.  Therefore, I must hate freedom.
  3. I am agnostic. I was not raised in a religious family, and I see that as a good thing, personally.  I am generally very ignorant regarding most forms of formal religion.  Due to my interest in all things homeland security, I probably know more about Islam than I do about Buddhism or Christianity.  I have deep and abiding respect for the rights of my fellow citizens to worship as they please.  I do not see a commensurate tolerance for those of us who choose not to worship formally; in fact, we are often viewed with pity, regarded with suspicion and spoken of with bile.  Religious freedom is a foundation of our Constitution, and apparently, God loves freedom.  I do not believe in God and therefore, I must hate freedom.
  4. I am comfortable. I have no room for learning from people with whom I disagree.  I cannot fathom that I might not be right, all of the time, and why on earth anyone with half a brain would bother to disagree with me when I am so very clearly right.  As a retiree, I recently enrolled in a graduate studies program so that I might more effectively plumb the depths of my lack of tolerance for new ideas; but really, I already know everything I need to know.  Therefore, I must hate freedom.
  5. I am disingenuous. I made a career of being a good “second”.  As an assistant chief of police, I did not aspire to my bosses job.  I got to do the work, and he got to take the heat.  Well, it seems I say I like to fly under the radar, but I currently miss no opportunity to step into the light to rag on TSA.  Unfortunately, I am very deeply concerned about the agency trajectory and have spent quite a bit of time composing my thoughts on this topic.  I have tried to ensure that this dialogue is informed by my education and experience, not just my emotions.  Challenging a key component of the Department of Homeland Security has led many people to quite reasonable offer that I because I do this, I must hate my country.  Fortunately, I like it when people question my motives and label me as unpatriotic.  I thrive on reflexive insults.  I am rebellious not robotic and therefore, I must hate freedom.

So, I hope I have made clear why it is that I hate freedom.  Freedom is overrated and undermined.  It is perishable.  It takes too much thought and debate.  It requires a lot of work.  It breeds humility and tolerance.  Who has time for any of that?

February 1, 2010

Budget Day – Security Stays Strong?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Budgets and Spending — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on February 1, 2010

Today is budget day for President Obama.  Expect a Fiscal Year 2011 budget of $3.834 trillion, of which $1.415 trillion is in discretionary funding.   The budget includes a three-year freeze on a number of discretionary program. The budget, if implemented, puts our 2011 projected deficit at $1.267 trillion or 8.3 percent of GDP.

Homeland Security, which has been rumored before Christmas Day to be facing a freeze and possible cuts to programs, will receive a bump up of 2 percent to $46.3 billion.  It is safe to say that the December 25th underwear bomber incident influenced the agency’s budget, with early information released by the White House highlighting $734 million to support the deployment of up to 1,000 new Advanced Imaging Technology screening machines at airport checkpoints and new explosive detection equipment for baggage screening.  There will also be an increase in the number of international flights covered by Federal Air Marshals to “defend against attempted attacks on aviation.”

Interestingly, in the quick overview released at 6am this morning by the White House, there was not a single mention of border security.   Numbers for Customs & Border Protection and related border/immigration programs are worth watching when the budget is released later today, especially as it might give some insight into where immigration reform may fall in terms of priorities for the President this year.

Also of note, the budget includes $33 billion for a 2010 supplemental request and $159.3 billion for 2011 to support overseas contingency operations, including those in operation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  DoD family support programs will grow 3 percent to $8.8 billion and State Department funding (excluding war costs) will increase by 2.6 percent.   The President also intends to provide $50.6 billion in advance appropriations for the VA medical care program.

Look for a deeper analysis later today/this evening.

January 13, 2010

Houston, We Have a Problem

Filed under: Aviation Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Mark Chubb on January 13, 2010

story in Monday’s New York Times once again highlighted the growing problem facing the United States in its efforts to combat terrorism: We’re swimming in sensors and drowning in data. Terrorism and its extremist adherents have no better ally in their efforts to harm us than our innate tendency to mistake problems of being for problems of knowing, and in doing so to tie ourselves in knots.

As inconceivable as the motivations and actions of terrorists may seem to us, their behavior does not pose an unimaginable much less unknowable threat. Although we may not know when, where, or how they intend to strike, we can be pretty sure they will.

Our inability to wrap our heads around the “why” of terrorism leads us to oversimplifications and misapprehensions about the nature of the terrorist threat on one hand and a tendency to over-reach in our efforts to know who they are and what they are up to on the other. This leads us to frame the problem of terrorism primarily as an effort to identify and interdict unknown enemies.

Our preoccupation with finding out whom we should target leads us to collect more information than we need, and, consequently, far more than we can intelligently manage. As such, it becomes not only increasingly difficult, but also increasingly impractical to assemble a coherent picture of the threats facing us.

With the possible combinations so numerous, we see few options besides throwing everything we have at the problem of sifting and sorting the data every way we can. But that’s the problem: We cannot sort or sift fast enough. Picking up the pace does no good. No matter how fast we work, we still make little or no progress.

Thankfully, looking for answers does not always require us to look for evidence. Sometimes all the evidence we need is already available, and all we really need to ask ourselves is “what does it all mean.”

Fortunately, this situation often arises when the stakes are high, making it a familiar setting for any experienced homeland security professional. Thos with experience know that gathering more information will not change the nature of a high-stakes problem nor will it make the solution any clearer. Indeed, just the opposite may be the case.

The popular Ron Howard movie Apollo 13 recounts the successful effort to save the crew of the crippled spacecraft after an unexpected explosion compromised the life support system aborting the original mission. In the movie (but apparently not in real-life), as the stakes became clear, flight director Gene Kranz played by actor Ed Harris, tells the engineers assembled to work out a strategy for saving the ship and its crew. “Failure is not an option.”

These words echo the sentiments expressed by President Obama during his scathing critiques of what he characterized as the intelligence failures that allowed the Nigerian Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, who is accused of attempting to destroy Northwest Airlines flight 253, to board the Detroit-bound aircraft in Amsterdam despite apparent foreknowledge of his links to extremists. As the President noted, intelligence agencies had the information, but they did not know what it meant and did not act on what they did know before Abdulmutallab boarded the flight.

In a scene from Apollo 13, a group of engineers assembles in a meeting room and a box of assorted items representing the materials available to the astronauts aboard the crippled spacecraft is emptied before them. Their charge was to figure out how to combine these resources in a new way to achieve the goal of keeping the crew alive and returning them to earth safely.

This sort of situation as it applies to terrorism has confronted the west before. Other countries confront this reality today. Few can afford to act as the United States has in imposing new regulations and technical security requirements on its people and its trading partners. Instead, they adapted their behavior to the reality of the threat confronting them.

When IRA bombers threatened riders on London’s Underground, the operators of the system relocated vendors to improve sight lines and removed rubbish bins to make it harder to conceal an incendiary or explosive device. Passengers too became an integral part of the security arrangements.

Whether we can afford to invest in better technology or not, we should ask ourselves whether what we have to invest will prove worth the cost when we look back at the value obtained. If NW 253 teaches us anything, it is that the investments we have already made in airport security and intelligence gathering and analysis have not made the target that much harder.

Looking at the security landscape before us, we might discover that we are far better off than we realize. The same things that prevented the terrorists aboard United Airlines flight 93 from succeeding on 9/11 saved lives again on Christmas Day. When everything is said and done, relying on the resourcefulness and courage of average Americans is not such a bad thing to do when failure is not an option.

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