Bush-era TSA head Kip Hawley definitely understands the problems with our approach to airport security and is right in laying the blame with the politicians rather than the TSA itself.
The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk. In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.
Any effort to rebuild TSA and get airport security right in the U.S. has to start with two basic principles:
First, the TSA's mission is to prevent a catastrophic attack on the transportation system, not to ensure that every single passenger can avoid harm while traveling. Much of the friction in the system today results from rules that are direct responses to how we were attacked on 9/11. But it's simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife. The cockpit doors have been reinforced, and passengers, flight crews and air marshals would intervene.
This is spot-on. The only things that should be banned from aircraft are items that could bring down the plane or inflict mass casualties.
Clearly, things needed to change. By the time of my arrival, the agency was focused almost entirely on finding prohibited items. Constant positive reinforcement on finding items like lighters had turned our checkpoint operations into an Easter-egg hunt. When we ran a test, putting dummy bomb components near lighters in bags at checkpoints, officers caught the lighters, not the bomb parts. ...
1. No more banned items: Aside from obvious weapons capable of fast, multiple killings--such as guns, toxins and explosive devices--it is time to end the TSA's use of well-trained security officers as kindergarten teachers to millions of passengers a day. The list of banned items has created an "Easter-egg hunt" mentality at the TSA. Worse, banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack. Lighters are banned? The next attack will use an electric trigger.
All of Hawley's recommendations are good, and I'm actually quite surprised to read so many sensible suggestions from a high-level bureaucrat.
One important consideration that isn't mentioned: the long security lines are themselves tempting targets for terrorists, and an attack at an airport line would disrupt our country as much as a downed plane.