- - Sunday, January 31, 2016

The new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) administrator is saying and doing a lot of smart things. Among them, he stopped the practice of randomly placing unknown air travelers into abridged screening, calling it an “untenable risk.” Smart. He has refocused his agency on security after years of lax management and public pressure shifted its priority to traveler convenience. He also flirts with acknowledging the clouded logic of his agency’s risk-based tag line. All smart. Unfortunately, he is still doubling down on the promise and pretense of reduced screening for PreCheck passengers.

Late last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general sent undercover auditors into airports to test the ability of TSA personnel and equipment to detect prohibited security items. The auditors were not trained to evade security. While the details are classified, the inspector general characterized the TSA’s performance as “disappointing and troubling.” One lawmaker suggested the auditors uncovered a 75 percent failure rate. The Government Accountability Office and the DHS inspector general both concluded that TSA airport screening is flawed in practice, design, administration, and most importantly effectiveness. Alarming given the current DHS advisory bulletin noting that “we are in a new phase in the global threat environment” that warrants “increased security.”

As Administrator Peter Neffenger sets out to right the ship, he will be called upon to think through the fundamental challenge inherent in his mission; how to thwart a statistically small percentage of would-be suicide terrorists without breaking the bank or the air travel industry. Over 1.7 million passengers fly every day.

So, what are his intentions? The new administrator is understandably focused on workforce recruiting, training, and management, as well as the use and maintenance of screening technology. He also intends to adopt an “intelligence led” approach, one in which background checks are performed on passengers before they arrive at the airport. Good ideas.

What could go wrong? The TSA lacks the authority to require travelers to undergo background checks, so it seeks volunteers and entices them with an abridged screening process that reduces the screening burden on TSA and shortens security lines for vetted volunteers. This is not necessarily such a good idea. TSA calls the program PreCheck and it is extremely popular among travelers looking for convenience.

Unfortunately, the new administrator is tacitly ratifying the belief that TSA airport screeners fail so badly at basic screening — the kind meant to detect weapons and explosives — because of the volume of travelers and baggage. There is little quantitative evidence to suggest screening will improve in the non PreCheck lanes or that background checks will identify would be terrorists. But, the appeal of reduced screening has widespread support.

So, the shift toward TSA domestic intelligence collection and analysis is near. But, the TSA is not an intelligence agency. It is historically a consumer of intelligence gathered and analyzed by others. To address this, TSA has issued a request for proposals seeking private company bids to do the work of passenger identity verification, background examination, and threat adjudication. The resulting commercially developed risk scores will be used to sort trusted passengers for reduced screening.

The substantive concern for Mr. Neffenger must be inherent in the gamble. It is a difficult task to predict a threat, especially when DHS notes it is currently, “concerned about the ‘self-radicalized’ actor(s) who could strike with little or no notice.” The details are also concerning. As a result of past political battles the private companies developing risk scores would be expressly barred from looking at a traveler’s financial history and social media. There does not seem to be a process for coordinating identity information with the FBI, either. Given the San Bernardino shootings, the persistence of ISIS, and the importance of social media in the radicalization process, this might not be wise from a security perspective.

For those of you worried about privacy, there are indications these restrictions might change. Just this week, a different division of DHS issued a request for company bids to monitor social media and other “open source intelligence.” Even though the PreCheck Expansion contract has been modified to remove these tasks, it seems DHS is exploring that path.

The policy trap lies in failing to examine alternatives to abridged screening as an incentive to volunteers — fundamentally a nod to convenience over security. Whether based on digital background checks or personal interaction, if behavioral detection fails, a strong screening baseline meant to detect weapons and explosives will be the agency’s only saving grace.

The administrative worry for Congress lies in allowing an agency with a failing record in its core functions to take on the much headier challenge of intelligence collection and analysis. Mr. Neffenger might want to let the intelligence community help with this one.

Thomas P. Bossert served as Deputy Homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.

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