New TSA Administrator Explains, Part II

Update: I did watch the rest of the hearing yesterday (see New TSA Administrator to Explain How Agency Will Fail Differently From Now On” (July 29)), although to be honest I just sort of listened to it in the background while doing something else. That’s probably more than most of the committee members did, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.

There were of course few details of any kind, but Neffenger did refer a few times to his belief that biometrics will be a big part of the answer. It will be, if the question is “how can we increase the stock price of companies that make biometric stuff?” But it won’t make us any safer overall.

An incident they discussed at the very same hearing helps prove that point. In Dallas this past Sunday, a guy managed to get on a plane—not just through security but onto the plane—by employing a technique against which biometrics will be utterly powerless: He just walked in.

The DFW Airport police report makes it very clear how [Damarias] Cockerham got on that American Airlines bound for Guatemala: He simply walked through a Terminal D checkpoint ‘without being stopped by a TSA agent.’

As it happens, I was traveling on Tuesday and I looked around at the security arrangements, such as they were, and it occurred to me that a pretty good terrorist strategy for getting onto a plane would be to just pile out of a van and run through the checkpoint, into the terminal, and past the gate agents of the closest plane that happens to be boarding at the time. Certainly no TSA person would slow them down, and there’ll never be enough airport police to matter. I know—it would be really unfair for them to break the rules like that, since they are supposed to try to fake IDs and boarding passes and sneak through the scanners and biometrics and whatnot. But that’s the thing with terrorists—they tend to be really impolite like that and do stuff you haven’t planned for.

Anyway, it turns out I was wrong, because they apparently wouldn’t have to run.

When Neffenger was asked about the incident yesterday, he said it was still under investigation but was willing to admit that it appeared to be a violation of some fairly basic principles:

With that specific case, that’s under investigation right now, and I am happy to share the results of that with the committee once we see what the specifics were that caused that. But the bottom line is: It should not be easy—it should be impossible—for someone to make their way past the checkpoint without being observed, and certainly should not be possible to get past a checkpoint to the point of getting on an aircraft without knowing about it….

So, good news—the new head of the TSA has recognized that, at a minimum, it should be impossible for people to get through security without being seen. That does seem like a goal we should be able to achieve, but then we’ve only invested 15 years and $70 billion on the problem. Have a little patience, people.