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What’s TSA up to?

2011 May 24 by

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It’s always good to see the folks from TSA headquarters and find out the latest and greatest. Last week they were at the American Association of Airport Executives Annual Conference, in Atlanta. Several of the usual suspects were on hand, along with, at one point, TSA Administrator John Pistole.

The hottest issue on everyone’s mind was the one that did not get addressed – the ongoing issue of law enforcement response to suspicious individuals. The question at hand is this: when a TSA Behavior Detection Officer feels that they have identified an passenger as suspicious and local law enforcement is called, what legal standing does the police officer have to ask questions and possibly even conduct a search of the individual, if that individual refuses to cooperate? That question was asked to Francine Kerner, Chief Counsel at the Transportation Security Administration. She provided a great lesson on the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, but unfortunately, not the answer to the question.

Upon being asked about this issue, Ms. Kerner launched into an explanation of what legal standing law enforcement officers have when an AIT (i.e. body imager) detects an anomaly on an individual. She articulated how, when an individual subjects themselves to a screening process, they are required to continue the entire process and cannot decide to stop and walk away. She dramatically repeated that we cannot allow a terrorist to walk away at the point of inspection, which, by the way, no rational individual disagrees with, and, was not the question on the table.

We’re talking about suspicious individuals (or those deemed as suspicious by a BDO) or those individuals that refuse to be searched prior to the screening checkpoint, but after passing a sign placed by TSA that essentially says, “beyond this point you may be subject to screening.” These are the two issues at hand.

The Constitution says that when a police officer stops an individual they must have reasonable suspicion that the person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity. They must have “specific and articulable facts,” beyond just a hunch. This is what’s known as a “Terry stop,” a name taken from Terry v. Ohio, the landmark case upon with the premise of reasonable suspicion is based.

So what happens when a BDO asks a passenger, or meeter-and-greeter who is walking through the public terminal area to submit to a series of questions and the person either (a) refuses to talk to the BDO, or (b) red flags on some of the BDO behaviors and the BDO summons a police officer? Does either case constitute reasonable suspicion? Depends on the circumstances, but what about when a police officer disagrees with the BDO and allows the individual to continue to the screening checkpoint? Can TSA deny the individual access to an aircraft. Can TSA detain the individual if a police officer does not?

This is the question that went unanswered and for over a year, continues to go unanswered. However, Ms. Kerner did clarify a point on where screening begins. Previously, she has inferred that screening begins wherever TSA says so. Now it seems that location is at least the location of the Travel Document Check or the beginning of the screening queue line – just depends on which definition you like at the time. Actually, what we heard was “when you pass a sign that says screening begins, that’s helpful to the courts.”

Okay, well, we’ll run with that for now.

By the way, she also lamented that there was a provision within the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 for police at screening checkpoints and at airports to be federalized. That would have required about another 100,000 plus employees to be hired and sent to Glynco, Georgia to become federal agents to provide law enforcement support and coverage to U.S. airports – this would have been a complete waste of money since local law enforcement officers have provided this coverage for decades.

One point Ms. Kerner did make is that the recent efforts in Texas by the state legislature to outlaw the aggressive pat-down is a mistake. State law cannot supersede Federal law (check the 10th amendment). However, Texas’ attempt here does make the point that people are still unhappy with the pat downs.

What will hopefully help the pat down controversy are the new K-9’s that are being trained to sniff out explosives on people instead of inanimate objects. Apparently, due to some trademark issues, the term Vapor Wake Detection is not available, but the latest name for this program is called “people-sniffing dogs,” which is not only grammatically incorrect but sounds really bad. TSA is working on a new name, but in the meantime the program is thankfully, moving forward.

As I’ve said before, the last thing a bad guy wants to see is a dog. Dogs not only provide better security and add an element of randomness, they can also be used at the screening checkpoint to reconcile many alarms, instead of the aggressive pat downs. Maybe we can quit having screeners inappropriately touching children, and the elderly. Recently, at several screening checkpoints, I’ve noticed an inordinate amount of senior citizens receiving pat downs – and in one case (on my way to Atlanta) an elderly woman who was so feeble, another screener had to hold her arms up while she was being patted down. Obviously, it’s not beyond imagination to think that grandma or grandpa has been radicalized by al Qaeda and wants to go out with a bang, but let’s use some common sense. Trusted Traveler can’t get here fast enough.

In other news, expect the Expedited Access for Uniformed Crew Members program (aka Crew Pass) to progress. This program allows certain uniformed flight crew members (not flight attendants yet) to bypass certain screening processes, away from their home airport. At their home airport, most pilots have a local airport identification badge which allows them to bypass screening, but at other airports, they must go through a TSA checkpoint. Crew Pass is biometric based identification to ensure that the pilot who has been issued the credential, is really who they say they are.

Flight attendants, stay tuned. If the program is successful for the pilots, you’re likely next. As for passengers, we kept hearing about the Trusted Traveler concept coming back and TSA Administrator Pistole continued to promote that TT is being looked at and that we want to move to that concept, but so far everything is still in the study phases.

During the TSA Roundtable, several TSA personnel were asked what they would change if they could. I liked the answer given by John Sammon Assistant Administrator for Transportation Sector Network Management. Sammon said that he wishes to not have everything be so public. He cited Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s innovations in New York City. Using deception and tactical surges of law enforcement personnel, and programs like Operation Nexus, a network of businesses and enterprises joined in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks, Kelly’s innovations are credited with preventing terrorist attacks and reducing crime.

When I bumped into Sammon later he and I discussed this issue for a few moments. I ride the thin line between providing too much information and there not being enough information out there for airport and airline operators to provide effective security. The fact is, most airport and airline operators have little to no security backgrounds or experience. There needs to be a baseline education – just as a police officer will come to your home and tell you the basics of protecting your house against burglary, or you can buy any number of books about it off the Internet, our industry professionals need to be provided with the basics of aviation security. However, you always stop short of providing too much information and therein lies the rub.

Part of the problem with TSA is still credibility. After 9/11, TSA came on like the new sheriff in town, dismissing the work and the expertise that had been in the industry before and tried to impose their own way of thinking – on a world they didn’t totally understand. Over the past 10 years however, most of the knuckle-draggers have moved on and TSA’s upper ranks has filled up with a lot of high quality professionals – people who are motivated by the same things those of us at airports and airlines are and many TSA personnel now come directly from the aviation industry. Unfortunately, it’s the initial credibility black eye that has yet to heal.

John Sanders, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Security Technology for TSA, had the best answer on what he would like to see changed – Sanders desires to accelerate the cycle of evolving to threats and put technologies on the street faster as the threats are identified. On that note, note to airport operators, all those EDS machines are coming up on their maximum service life and need to be replaced. Keep an eye on changes and expenses here.

While the TSA staff was good to hear from, they did defer many questions to John Pistole’s upcoming presentation, which finally occurred on Wednesday, during the last day luncheon.

Pistole said that the death of bin Laden marks a significant achievement in the fight against terrorism, but not the end and others continue to pursue attacks against the United States, which I completely agree with. Pistole said that the TSA is the last line of defense, which I disagree with. Beyond the screening checkpoint, there are numerous other layers of security that are reliant on airport and airline operators. But, if a TSA TSO believes that the buck stops with them, then I’m fine with that level of vigilance.

Pistole made another important point, that so far, most TSA Administrator’s have been afraid to admit: he says we are not in the risk elimination business, but instead in the risk mitigation business. While we want to have 100% security, it’s not achievable. However, you usually don’t get elected to office (or appointed) by saying, “yes, we will make sure that most terrorist attacks are not successful,” even though that’s the best outcome you can hope for.

In over 50 years of aviation we still haven’t made flying (or driving for that matter) perfectly safe, yet we’ve reduced the risk to what most people feel are acceptable levels.

Pistole talked about advances in the Secure Flight program, which now allows TSA to have a better understanding of who is boarding commercial airliners, before they get on the plane.

Continuing with the trusted traveler concept, Pistole says that future screening checkpoints will focus on streamlining the passenger experience for low risk passengers, while not trying to establish a legend that the terrorist can figure out. While future trusted travelers will likely receive less screening, there will always be random screening throughout all of the screening processes – whether you’re trusted or not.

Pistole said that he sees partnerships moving forward between TSA and industry, provided that any change strengthens, and doesn’t weaken security. Unfortunately, at the end of his comments, there was not much chance to hear from the “partners” as he quickly left the podium and did not take any questions.

Pilot You Tube Videos Revealed. . . what?

2010 December 27 by

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This story is getting a lot of play this week. I’ve heard that this pilot has been called everything from a hero to a whistleblower, and his attorney is equally enjoying his own celebrity. Just recently his attorney offered to make his client available to consult with Congress on aviation security.

Time to offer some reality.

First, I don’t know who the pilot is. Second, taking away his gun and credentials to carry concealed and be a Federal Flight Deck Officer is beyond my call. Like ALL stories, there are probably details here that we’re not hearing about. I can say that off-hand, it appears that the pilot violated certain items that are either Sensitive Security Information, or through his methods of attempting to reveal security “gaps,” he has demonstrated to the authorities that he may not be able to be trusted with other SSI materials and data.

As for what he revealed and his hero status and potential to brief Congress. From what I can tell, a “gap” was not revealed. The fact that many airport and airline employees do not undergo screening like passengers do, is not an industry secret. It’s been going on since about the time that screening for passengers was implemented. It IS a controversial topic, but there are not easy solutions.

I addressed this issue in Practical Aviation Security. While many employees that work at the airport do go through screening, thousands still do not — at least not in the way that passengers do. In the U.S. employee “screening,” is conducted through the fingerprint-based criminal history record check. Yes, we decide to do a background check on employees, then we trust them. The same type of screening that many security experts have been calling for, in lieu of touching junk and being x-rayed.

That said, several significant aviation security attacks were conducted by employees so the problem clearly still exists. I don’t know that sending hundreds of thousands of employees through checkpoints will resolve that issue. It will certainly cost A LOT MORE MONEY and TSA would have to hire tens of thousands of employees to staff the new checkpoints. Or, TSA could decide that employee screening is the purview of the airport operator, and declare an unfunded mandate that airports install their own employee checkpoints and staff them with contract personnel. This is exactly what’s happening at Miami and Orlando, where employees are screened at checkpoints, in addition to the background check. However, these airports are paying for it themselves.

TSA has run pilot programs on various employee screening options and I agree that this is an area that remains weak in terms of the layered system. However, the “hero” pilot has not revealed anything new here. I know from reading plenty of congressional testimony in my book research that Congress is already aware of this fact. If you want a pilot to address Congress about aviation security issues, then I suggest you contact the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). ALPA has a great team with excellent security backgrounds and can put the proper perspective on this issue.

I’m sure the pilot who shot these videos (many of which just show the public areas of an airport), had good intentions. However, if you really want to make security safer, get involved with your trade associations and union security committees. I think you’ll find some folks there with a wealth of knowledge who can help you address your concerns, so at least you can keep your credentials and gun.

Light Sabers on the prohibited item list?

2010 April 17 by

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I guess the first interesting question is, why are light sabers on the prohibited items list? Now, I was there in 1977 when Star Wars first came out, and I’ve seen all the movies plenty of times over — and as much as I’d love to have a light saber, they are, unfortunately, a fictional weapon. And one you cannot carry on an airplane — maybe because they are afraid that a fictional Sith Lord will try to take over the plane.

Our recent trip to Italy for vacation was of course wonderful, but as an aviation security author I can’t go to any airport without observing their security practices. What I’ve learned from our trip to Italy are three main things: the Rome Airport never forgot 1985; the people in Italy don’t seem as concerned about terrorist attacks, and you can’t take a light saber on an airplane, without attracting some suspicion.

First observation: Rome Never Forgot 185

In 1985, terrorists, using guns and grenades, conducted an assault on the passenger terminal buildings in Rome, Italy and Vienna, Austria. I have railed and warned about airport attacks in the past, how this is a potential avenue for attack and how airports need to take this more seriously. Well, in Rome, they have. In fact, next to Israel, I believe they have one of the best systems for preventing an airport attack in the public area. They may have even bested Israel in some ways.

DISCLAIMER: In everything from the textbook to this blog, I never reveal anything that isn’t available to the public, through casual observation or through public sources.

Upon entering the terminal building at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino) Airport you immediately notice the catwalk surrounding the check-in lines. The catwalk is patrolled by armored and armed police officers, carrying submachine guns. They have areas where they can duck behind cover and even, what I’m assuming, are bulletproof glass barriers where they can keep watch while under fire if necessary. In observing the observers (the police) these were not laid back airport cops chatting up the local gentry. These guys were seriously reviewing the crowd. When a passenger started arguing with the security person doing the document check, one of the police watched for several seconds until it was apparent the passenger was just upset, but not a threat. That’s true police work. Check out a questionable situation and make a decision about what it really is so you can focus on other threats.

In addition to the police patrolling on the catwalks, I also saw at various times, 1-3 additional police officers on the ground floor with the passengers. They weren’t always carrying submachine guns, but at least had 9mm pistols, rather than what you can still find in some U.S. airports with cops carrying old school revolvers.

Second Observation: the people in Italy don’t seem as concerned about terrorist attacks

In Italy I was more interested in sightseeing, eating and enjoying wine at lunch (and dinner), so I wasn’t conducting a formal poll, but overall it seems that folks in Italy weren’t as worried about terrorism. Maybe you just can’t attack a country with wine and coffee that is THAT good!

Entering the country at the Italian immigration and customs area, our Passports were barely even looked at and were not stamped. In fact, we were pretty much just waved through. Meanwhile, the Italian citizens had to stand in the really long line to get back into their country. It seems that Italy is more concerned about who is leaving as we all got our Passports checked and stamped on the way out. I guess they wanted to make sure we left all of our tourism dollars in Italy before allowing us to leave.

Throughout our travels on the Eurorail, it was both nice and interesting. There is no screening or visible security personnel, with the exception of the occasional guard or police officer, and even then you have to really be looking to spot one. You sort of just get on and off the train and sit and off you go. I’m reminded of the attacks on the rails in Madrid, Spain a few years ago. If this was a mass transit rail system in the U.S. there would have been 300 screeners, x-ray equipment, explosive detection machines and train marshals — that is, if we moved the kind of people the Eurorail moves — we really don’t have national rail in this country and compared to the real systems overseas, you can’t count Amtrak.

I think one major difference between the U.S. and the rest of the traveling world, is that we expect our government to protect us from all bad things that could happen to us. Meanwhile, it seems that the rest of the world takes a sort of, well, I suppose it could happen but I’m not going to worry about it. Maybe they don’t want to give up every right they have to buy some false sense of security.

What is interesting is that while there was virtually no visible security on the Eurorail, the aviation security was more intensive. For example, Italy still does the security questioning before you can get to the airline check-in area. And this is where our light saber saga begins.

Third Observation: You Can’t Carry a Light Saber on a Plane

I’m not so naive that I would try to carry even a fake weapon as carry-on baggage but this does bring up a point about the lack of common sense in aviation security practices — it’s not just a U.S. phenomena.

We had purchased some plastic light sabers for one of our kids. Why we bought something in Italy we could have bought at Target is a different story and we’re not going there. Let’s just say that I did my homework and saw the article where TSA confiscated a fake Pirates of the Caribbean sword from a kid at Disney World who’s father had died of cancer (click here for the story), so I didn’t want to take the chance that we’d have our kids toys confiscated by the Italian aviation security personnel.

The light sabers were fixed, not retractable and we when asked by the security personnel whether we had anything that looked like a weapon in our CHECKED baggage, we declared that we had them. We wanted them to be inspected in our presence rather than behind some wall where they’d possibly just get tossed and we’d get a note of apology upon our arrival in the States.

It took about 30 minutes as the US airline agents made calls, inspected the light sabers (you know, the pieces of plastic with a flashlight on the end, and keep in mind that it’s a fictional weapon, not a REAL light saber — those don’t exist, I don’t care what kind of fanboy you are) and then eventually decided that if the batteries were removed the light sabers would be “safe.” Oddly enough, the agent threw away the brand new batteries. I’m not sure why, batteries, especially in checked baggage, aren’t prohibited items.

During this time, one of the patrolling armed officers did look down. I can imagine what he was thinking: “Can’t anyone just make a common sense decision about this? It’s a fictional weapon — heck, it’s a long piece of plastic.”

And this is the problem with aviation security and common sense. Those are four words that don’t go together. We need some trust in the system. While we are grateful to US Airways for working with us and ultimately clearing the devices to fly in checked baggage, tons of time and staff effort could have been saved if the agent had just come out, seen what the device was, and made a common sense decision. In fact, if common sense and Smart Trust (as defined by Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust) could infuse itself into the aviation security system, the system would move faster and cost less money — and we may even see some customer service and have the ability to, just like the Eurorail, travel like we did many years ago, when flying was fun.

I wonder though, would a Sith Lord need to use a light saber to hijack a plane? Couldn’t they just use the Jedi Mind Trick or that cool lightning they fire out of their hands? Maybe Sith Lord Hands are also on the prohibited items list. Bummer.

Dirty Harry flies without his gun, so far

2010 February 15 by

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There are nearly 1 million State and Local Law Enforcement Officers (LEO’s) in the United States, however, under federal regulations most of them are not allowed to carry firearms on board a commercial aircraft.

Federal agents are allowed to carry their firearms whether on or off-duty but your local police officer is not, unless they are on-duty and conducting an official duty such as a prisoner escort, protective duties, etc. There is also a complicated process in place for LEO’s to fly armed even with a valid, approved reason.

I’m sure the rules were developed in the interest of safety. No one wants rounds being tossed around the cabin of an aircraft by people who don’t understand the environment. However, these rules were developed prior to 9.11.01. We live in a new world today. We live with a new threat and perhaps it’s time to revisit these rules and say that the threat is worth the relatively low risk of a sworn LEO having a gun on a plane.

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) has just asked the President Obama (click here for article) to allow appropriately certified federal, state and local officers to carry firearms on board commercial flights.

Already there are those opposed to this program such as the Air Transport Association and some aviation “experts,” who say that preventing bad people and bad things from getting on planes, and air marshals, are the only ways to protect airplanes. Anyone who thinks there is only one way to stop an attack on aviation is not an expert in aviation security in my opinion.

It is a layered system and oddly enough, at the end of the day, it’s been the passengers on several flights that have prevented many tragedies. It’s not hard to imagine the force multiplier that would be produced by allowing state and local LEO’s, who are properly trained and certified, to be allowed to carry their guns in-flight. What are your thoughts?

TSA officers to be informed; say, there’s a thought

2010 February 12 by

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TSA announced today that approximately 10,000 of their workers will began the process of getting Secret clearances so they can receive better intelligence related to the current threats. Click here.

While I applaud TSA’s latest action, I’m stunned that it had not been done before. This is Anti-Terrorism 101. I was in intelligence for the U.S. Coast Guard many years ago and it was part of the job to have the appropriate clearances to do one’s job. If TSA Behavior Detection Officers and others who come into contact with the public are not properly advised about the threat, then how do they know when they see something they should pay more attention to?

Already there are those that are saying that if we allow more people access to information, the risk of that information spreading to unauthorized sources is increased. Yes, it is. But this is all part of the risk assessment. While information benefits both sides of a conflict, the lack of information on one side obviously handicaps that side. Case in point, prior to the publication of Practical Aviation Security, many people who work in aviation security did not even know the fundamentals of protecting aviation, while the bad guys certainly knew how to exploit the weaknesses.

It’s an operational risk that you take when you share intelligence. You hope that sharing the intelligence will benefit your side before the other side figures it out. Besides, what information are we trying to prevent from releasing here? Don’t the bad guys already know what they are planning? Shouldn’t we?

Now, since I was in the intel community I’m not so naive here to understand some basics, like certain sources and methods of information need to be protected and while we wrote a book on aviation security, we didn’t give away everything — my analogy is like calling the cops to ask their advice on how to protect your home from being robbed. They will tell you the basics of home protection, but you’re not publishing your security alarm codes and your travel schedule on the front door.

I have watched the protection of sensitive information go too far in my former work environment when even the good guys wouldn’t tell each other what was going on and we’d have to go get the information elsewhere, wasting time and resources, and ultimately exposing sources and methods as we double and tripled collected data. Reminds me of the old Get Smart movie with the Cones of Silence — we’re so secret even we don’t know what we’re doing.

I believe that sharing certain information is good. TSA officers should be aware of what the bad guys are doing. The general public should be aware of the threat. Remember, the passengers on United 93 were INFORMED about what the true intent of the hijackers was and that ENABLED them to take appropriate action. The passengers on the other flights did not have that data.

Classification Fever

2009 March 10 by

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The passengers on United Flight 93 knew the real intent of the hijackers on their flight. With that information, they were able to take action and in all likelihood, prevented the destruction of the White House or the U.S. Capitol. Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security seems to be wrapped up in the over-classification of documents that if released to the proper entities, could help in the protection of the United States.

The U.S. House is just passed the Reducing Over-Classification Act of 2009 (H.R. 553) which is intended to reduce the over-classification of homeland security information and other sensitive materials.  One of the provisions of the bill would allow more law enforcement agencies to see unclassified versions of intelligence that DHS currently holds tightly to their chest.

Being a former U.S. Coast Officer who worked for two years in the field of intelligence, specifically narcotics intelligence, I understand the need for controlling the dissemination and distribution of classified information. However, I’ve seen it go to extreme levels in both the counter-narcotics world, and in counter terrorism. Since the Sensitive Security Information (SSI) regulations were created, the prime directive seemed to be: when in doubt, slap SSI on it and restrict it, without much regard for who could actually use the information and whether it was actually SSI or not. I’ve seen TSA presentations with SSI on the materials, even though the information was obtained through open source information. The guiding principle should be to decide if something truly needs to be classified and restricted, instead of putting SSI on it as a means to cover oneself from liability. Perhaps this legislation will help.

This discussion actually leads to the greater discussion and that is the use of Security Directives as policy inititatives. SD’s are supposed to be used to make immediate changes to airport and aircraft operator security in order to respond to an imminent or pending threat – like the liquid bomb plot in August of 2006. However, ever since 9/11, SD’s have been used to create policies and “pseudo-regulations” without undergoing the appropriate amendment process called for under Title 49 CFR Part 1542, or the Notice of Proposed Rule Making process. The absurdity extended last December when a member of TSA made a comment at the annual security summit that they had been working on a revision to one particular directive for eight months. Eight months to respond to a real time threat? Of course not, but there are few people in the industry that believe SD’s are actually used just for responding to threats. Most everyone understands that they are TSA’s tool for making policy changes that do not have the chance to undergo scrutiny of the entities it will affect.

Obviously, I cannot disseminate the contents of any SD here in this public forum, but suffice to say that many of the directives that have come forth are administrative in nature and should be subject to administrative reviews through the amendment process, as called for in the regulation. The problem with using SD’s for administrative changes not directly related to an actual threat also calls into question the ability to train airport and air carrier personnel on the security processes. Since the basic Airport Security Coordinator training curriclum is outlined in Title 49 CFR Part 1542 much of the information is publicly accessible. Again, I’m not promoting the concept that we tell people things they should not hear, but we also need to tell the right people the things they do need to hear to do their jobs. Then, like on United 93, we can respond to the information in an appropriate manner.

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