TSA's Risk-based Approach to Security

George Naccara is betting that the lift of his risk-based reforms will overcome the drag of politics and bureaucracy. And the test bed for these innovations is Boston's Logan Airport

Part 1: Lift

Terminal A in Boston's Logan International Airport is so new it still has that new terminal smell. It's absurdly spacious with ceilings of significant altitude. Trash bins, benches and planters (currently holding poinsettias)pretty and also designed to bear up against bomb blastsrun the length of the sparsely adorned building, parallel to massive (blast-resistant) panes of glass that make up the terminal's front wall and look out on a state police officer who tells lingering motorists to move along on this bright blue day just before Christmas. The terminal is subdued. A few passengers check in and watch as their checked bags are conveyed behind a curtain, out of sight. George Naccara, Logan's federal security director, the Transportation Security Administration's head man here, hustles past the counters and down an escalator. He's going where the bags are going.

At about the same time, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is hosting a press event in Terminal B, an older facility with low ceilings and narrow hallways. Markey is introducing the Leave All Blades Behind Act, legislation that would prevent TSA from removing some scissors and tools such as screwdrivers from its banned-items list, which was scheduled to happen two days hence. This change is a small but controversial part of Naccara's broader, ambitious agenda to reinvent TSAat Logan anywayas a risk-based decision-making organization. By whatever small amount the banned-items list reduces risk, Naccara argues, it's not nearly proportional to the resources it requires.

Every month, Logan's TSA screeners confiscate 12,000 banned items from the traveling public. Pocket knives, knitting needles, scissors and the like make up the vast majority. Once in a while, a serious blade shows up, as does the occasional ice pick. Screeners have confiscated a can with the words "Time Bomb" stamped on the side. It was perfume. Every so often they'll seize a carburetor. Once, a research doctor tried to stow seven human heads in the overhead bin.

"But the point is, 11,995 of those items pose no risk at all," Naccara says. "They're people going about their business who say, 'I forgot that was in there.'"

A more effective security operation, Naccara argues, will not waste time looking for and confiscating scissors and knitting needles. It will watch the behavior of the people who carry scissors and knitting needles; and it will use technology to look for more serious threats in a way that's both less random and more comprehensive than current methods. Naccara's insistence on ending the confiscation madness and reinventing TSA comes off as a kind of benevolent belligerence. He's also received some support from his boss in Washington, D.C., Kip Hawley, who has similar ideas about managing risk.

But Naccara's dilemma is that for years now his own agency, TSA, has very successfully marketed the need for and effectiveness of the banned-items list. Maybe the flying public have an object fixation, but TSA did the fixing. Travelers have come to accept "no sharp objects" as a fact of flying. Naccara, then, must replace one marketing message with another one potent enough to redefine the public's perceptions of safety. That's no small thing. People might not care to be safer if they don't feel safer. And even if risk analysis says reducing the banned-items list is not risky, passengers won't feel safer knowing sharp objects are allowed back on planes after hearing how important it was to ban those items in the first place. And many of those passengers vote.

Which explains Rep. Markey, over in Terminal B, calling TSA's plan "a gift to terrorists this holiday season." Markey has enlisted the support of congressmen from both sides of the aisle, as well as the Association of Flight Attendants and family members of 9/11 victims. Even Craig Coy, CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), who sees Naccara almost every week, was, at first, publicly critical of his plan.

Downstairs in Terminal A, a local TV political reporter and his cameraman stop Naccara. Care to comment on Markey's position? Later, Naccara promises. The reporter and cameraman retreat, and Naccara presses on. Finally, through one more door, he has caught up with the bags inside of a 3.5-acre room that smells of jet fuel. In fact, it's the country's first in-line integrated baggage-screening system.

"Here it is," Naccara says, as if he wishes the reporter were still here, because this room is, in fact, how he cares to comment.

When Naccara arrived as Logan's security director in June 2002, the airport's security was terrible; and it appeared, from the details that roiled up in 9/11's wake, that Logan security had been terrible for a decade. Massport, the governing authority, was savaged, accused of cronyism in hiring security personnel. Federal Aviation Administration reports surfaced that said agents had easily slipped guns, inert hand grenades and simulated bombs past checkpoints. All told, there were 234 such violations at Logan in a decade, the fifth-highest total among major airports. FAA agents also managed to get onto Logan's airfield 26 times. Once, a teenager scaled a perimeter fence, crossed two miles of restricted area and stowed away on an international flight.

Castigated by all this (and further motivated by a close-up look at shoe-bomber Richard Reid when his flight was diverted to Boston in December 2001), Logan seemed to repent and to zealously pursue forgiveness in the form of improved credibility. "The terrorists had about a 75 to 80 percent chance of succeeding hereat any airport, reallyand they did," says Tom Kinton, airport director for Massport. "We know there's no silver bullet, but we realized that what we had to do is flip those odds. Make it a 40/60 or 30/70 proposition. Terrorists, like any competitive force, won't go anywhere where success is a 50/50 proposition or worse."

Almost three years to the day after terrorists used it as a launching point, Logan was named the safest airport in America by Airport Security Report. A year after that, Kinton won the coveted Airport Director of the Year award from another trade publication. Perhaps more important than the awards, though, the airport had developed what many call "the Boston reputation" for security. Logan has become something no one could have predicted it would right after 9/11: a successful and creative security innovator and an incubator for new security technology.

Logan volunteers to test whatever new security technology it can. The Terminal A baggage room is one example, but the airport also tried similar technology out front at security checkpoints, under a program called Cobra (Carry-On Baggage Real Time Assessment). Logan tested and now uses the explosives trace portal (ETP), or "puffer machine," at one checkpoint. The ETP shoots several bursts of air at a passenger's body. The jets of air dust up microscopic particles, which are analyzed for traces of explosives.

Taking input from screeners, Logan reconfigured the screening process at the terminals' security checkpoints and increased passenger throughput by 30 percent. Naccara will offer up how he did it to any airport that asks. Few seem to (more about that later). Logan is also the lone airport to mandate training employees and ticket agents in some basic behavioral profiling (think neighborhood watch rather than professional law enforcement), under a program called Logan Watch. The airport just started testing a new system that monitors the exit doors at gates and other restricted areas, looking for people going in through the out door and vice versa. TSA at Logan also wants to launch a broad networking project (wired and wireless) to link up security personnel and devices across the airport.

And there's a general grant of permission to invent. Anthony Ventresca, one of several Logan veterans who came over to TSA from the airlines, was in the supermarket one day and noticed how several checkout lanes were earmarked for different numbers of itemsseven or fewer, 11 or fewer, and so on. It seemed to him awfully specific. Eventually, he learned that supermarkets use throughput analysis to configure their checkout lanes. Wouldn't that work at security checkpoints in airport terminals, Ventresca wondered. Naccara says he told Ventresca what he tells any TSA person looking to try something out: "Go for it. I can't really give you any money or people, but give it a shot."

So Ventresca built a software program on top of a spreadsheet to collect data from the terminals' security checkpoints. Because of it, TSA at Logan has shifted from guessing at passenger loads to predicting them with remarkable accuracy. TSA Ops Center guys in Boston can predict how many people will be coming through a terminal, what types of people (business travelers, school vacationers), and the amount and type of baggage they'll have. Staffers can even predict, based on all this data, the number and type of security events to expect at any given terminal on any given day of the year.

It's real risk analysis, the kind of thing Naccara loves. Ventresca says it's an ad hoc tool in a constant state of upgrade; it doesn't even have a name. But other airports have recently begun borrowing the software to see if they can do throughput analysis the way Logan does.

Logan has also implemented other, nontechnological innovations, such as injecting some degree of randomness into the security profile. This may sound counterintuitive, but making the profile more variablefor example, by occasionally adding canine units and semiautomatic weapons to patrols, or changing the screening process from time to timemakes the airport a less desirable target because there's no predictable pattern to break.

But the most important nontechnical security that's been added is behavioral profiling. After 9/11, Massport hired Rafi Ron, the former security director of Jerusalem's Ben Gurion airport, as a consultant to assess Logan's security and suggest improvements. A cornerstone of Ron's advice was behavioral profiling, which uses techniques long employed by the Israelis to discern potential malevolence revealed through physical tells (stiff torsos, a rapidly quivering adam's apple or clenched fists, among others). The program teaches screeners how to detect these tells and respond to them with techniques like "walk and talks." (For Katherine Walsh's interview with Ron about his methods, see "Suspicious Minds," www.csoonline.com/020106.) Law enforcement and TSA personnel trained in the programs say that once you've learned behavioral profiling, the difference between an average nervous flyer and a suspicious one is stark. It's as if the suspicious person were dyed purple.

The Massachusetts State Police have been using a program based on Ron's at Logan for several years. "I watch those guys do this," Naccara says. "They impress the hell out of me." So do the techniques, and from early on Naccara wanted TSA to use behavioral profiling. Massport and the state police trained TSA people, and Naccara linked the programs together, developing clear protocols for handing cases off between one agency and another.

For an airport, such artful cooperation is somewhat unique; at Logan it contributes to the Boston reputation. For now, TSA's program is called the Screenings by Passenger Observation Technique, or SPOT for short (the acronym has changed no fewer than four times, and at least three of them are currently in circulation). Whatever it's eventually called, SPOT is the sun of Naccara's solar system, around which all other risk-based security techniques revolve.

At first, he says, there was reluctance in Washington to move so quickly with SPOT. "We were pushing too hard and too fast for them," he says. "But we didn't back off, because we'd seen it work here. We knew it was the right thing to do." Naccara's aggressiveness could have backfired, but instead it aligned with the appointment of Hawley as TSA's new director. Hawley wanted fresh ideas on aviation security, and he embraced SPOT and decided to name Naccara the program's national director, meaning that Naccara would oversee the rollout of SPOT to the country's 40 highest-risk airports.

At about the same time Naccara was appointed director of SPOT, Hawley was re-centralizing TSA in Washingtona decision that seemed dubious to many TSA officials scoring success after success in Boston. "Every airport is different," Ventresca says, walking along a blast wall that backs one of the runways. "Physically they're different. In the way the port authority works. In the relationships with law enforcement." At any rate, re-centralization meant all directors worked out of Washington, so Naccara would have to move to direct SPOT.

But he told Hawley he would lead the SPOT rollout only if he could remain at Logan. Hawley, fully validating the Boston reputation, relented.

Part 2: Drag

In leveraging the Boston reputation, TSA at Logan is part research lab, part startup venture, andowing to a righteous belief in its methodspart religion. That's right, religion. For Naccara's TSA acts in some ways like the Church of the Managed Risk, determined to atone for past sins and eager to bring its gospel to other airports.

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