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

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Given that Logan's religion was born out of 9/11, one might expect that it would be easy enough to propagate. But it's not. Now, nearly five years since the attacks, it's becoming clear that other airports, politicians and the public may not have the energy or desire to adopt Logan's approach to aviation security, even if it leads to TSA's reinvention as a risk-based decision-making operation.

The best example of Logan's inability to spread the gospel comes from one of Massport's and TSA's proudestand simplestinnovations, what is called "the 0830." Every day since Sept. 12, 2001, major stakeholders at the airport have met at 8:30 a.m. for a security briefing led by Kinton.

On a typical weekday, as many as 75 people will attend, representing Massport, TSA, numerous carriers, state police, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Customs, air marshals and others. The meeting could last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. It's a chance to review news and share intel, but it's also a chance to communicate. Naccara says mini-meetings break out before and after the 0830, chats that he says have produced some of his best ideas. Russ Webster, TSA's number two at Logan, says the meetings have helped because "we're not trading business cards during a crisis. Everyone knows everyone, and we can get on with fixing it."

Despite the required commingling of dozens of stakeholders, airports are often territorial and disconnected, which makes these meetings something of a security breakthrough. Naccara has offered the 0830 idea to TSA leaders at other airports, and to other security directors. Shaking his head, he says, "I can't get one other to do it."

Naccara, Kinton, Ventresca and others were happy to speculate on why and how Boston earned its reputation. There's the visceral effect of 9/11; the local technology and defense companies, and major research universities; some credit Kinton and Naccara as well for their leadership skills and deliberately apolitical mode of operation.

But no one cared to speculate as to why Logan hasn't been able to spread its practices to other airportseven though some of the ideas, like the 0830 meeting, are remarkably easy to implement at low cost. Kinton's reaction to the question was typical: "I don't know. I don't want to make a judgment. I'm sure [other airports] take security seriously. If they haven't adopted these practices, it's not for me to judge."

In some ways it makes sense to be pessimistic about Logan's prospects for preaching the risk-based religion effectively. It's not yet clear that Logan itself will succeed in the transformation. Whatever success Naccara has enjoyed is based on working within a fragile ecosystem comprising scads of interdependent stakeholders, agendas and jurisdictions (one security incident at Logan could involve 20 agencies).

For example, technology is now being tested to prevent people from using exits to enter secure areas and entrances to exit them. The question of jurisdiction over these doors is complicated, involving Massport, TSA, the airlines and the state police. But, says Ventresca, "Massport is shelling out the dough for the technology, [and] TSA's going to test it."

The fact that the various stakeholders managed to overcome ego and turf issues enough to get the tech trial off the ground counts as a minor miracle to some. "It's not like this at other airports," says one Logan TSA staffer. "And it's barely like this here."

Logan's TSA managers are quick with stories about how behind the shiny success story there exists a creaky scaffolding built from these sorts of tangled relationships and fudged jurisdictions. Sources recountedthough not for attributioncountless turf battles and other comic scenes where a security incident would lead to "eight or nine guys in suits, all from different agencies, arriving at the checkpoint at the same time to take credit." One manager ranted for 10 minutes about TSA's IT supplier having ridiculously restrictive controls that hamper the agency's ability to be flexible. That IT supplier puts stickers with its logos on all its equipment. As a passive-aggressive commentary, an anonymous TSA staffer started pasting those stickers on TVs and elsewhere around the office.

The TSA Ops Center in Boston, where staffers not only manage Logan security but also take in most of the security intel from across the country (it's also where Ventresca's throughput analysis software runs), still uses a dial-up network connection. "I feel 10 years younger in here," one TSA staffer in the office deadpans.

Besides slagging the IT supplier, TSA employees were heard to rip Congress and the media for ignorance about risk; the FBI for its turf battles (including an incident where FBI agents locked TSA staffers out of a TSA office because the agents were having what they said was a confidential meeting); its own technology research group for a lack of vision and purpose ("they're nice people, but useless; we basically work around them"); and the agency's headquarters in Washington for not pushing even harder for the Logan way, and thus slowing progress toward better aviation security.

Naccara is more diplomatic, saying that the cooperation that exists at Logan is exemplary, that the subjugation of egos and managing of red tape is a positive, and that his relationship with Washington is "good." But those underneath him are blunter. "Dial-up!" the Ops Center staffer snorts. "Can you [flipping] believe it?"

Even if Logan manages to hold the partnerships together, Naccara's vision for security faces other obstacles. Troubling media reports of poor judgment on the part of TSA screeners at security checkpoints surface regularlyfrom improper pat downs to unusually harsh detainments. (Discipline is a heavily regulated process; in Boston a barrel-chested ex-Marine named George Barris is in charge of it. In the Ops Center, he held up a stack of paper, about 80 pages thick, which he said concerned a single complaint against one screener.) Naccara believes most lapses are a function of staffing challenges. TSA screeners at Logan Airport view 2.1 million images a month. "It is a repetitive, thankless job where you're asked to invade the personal space of people who are already nervous about flying," he observes.

Perhaps because of this, TSA suffers high turnover, another factor working against the long-term success of the Logan experiment. An internal review found that many who leave TSA are staying in government jobs, but move to agencies where the work is less mind-numbing and the job appears to have a career track. Naccara's vision of risk-based decision making may improve the turnover problem, because it aims in part to reduce the repetitive aspects of screening and introduce more variety. Naccara hopes the behavioral profiling job will give TSA some of the allure sought by those who would decamp to other agencies.

But behavioral profiling itself carries another set of challenges. As the program becomes more public, concerns about racial profiling have been raised. The American Civil Liberties Union sued and then settled with TSA in 2003 over the practice in its earliest stages of development (a case involving the arrest and detention of a doctor of Indian descent by federal air marshals in Philadelphia). And in late 2004, an ACLU lawyer who is black says he was detained by state police at Logan Airport for no good reason. This is likely how it will be with SPOT; if concerns about racial profiling derail it, then the gravity goes out of Naccara's risk-based solar system.

TSA's Webster says that behavioral profiling focuses on physical cues, not appearance. "In fact, if you're profiling by race, you're doing it wrong, and you will miss people who would do you ill will," he says. But no one is perfectly objective, and opponents point to studies showing that people profile racially without even realizing it.

Naccara acknowledges all of the concerns but doesn't waver from his belief in SPOT. To allay fears, he says, he's hoping to get an endorsement from the ACLUas he rolls out SPOT across the country. But he recognizes and worries about the problem. "One major incident and all this work could be for nothing," he says fretfully. Adds Ventresca, "We'll have to get through a couple of incidents and accusations before [behavioral profiling] is accepted. But we believe in it. We know it works."

So, let's say Logan manages to keep myriad stakeholders together, and then manages to minimize publicly embarrassing incidents at checkpoints and improve its staffing problems, and then manages to keep the behavioral profiling program intact despite challenges along the way. Naccara's vision of a reworked TSA still faces another challengemaybe its biggest of all: metrics.

One of the Coast Guard's many jobs is fisheries enforcementmaking sure fisherman aren't fishing in restricted waters. For decades, Congress gauged the success of fisheries enforcement by one metric above all others: boat boardings. Like meter maids giving out tickets, the more boats the Coast Guard boarded in or near restricted waters, the better the job it was doing. Then came GPS technology, and the Coast Guard didn't need to board so many boatsofficers could see where boats were going from their own vessels. Boardings dropped significantly. Russ Webster, who like Naccara was a Coastie, remembers that when it came time to review the Coast Guard budget, the first question Congress asked was, "Hey, what happened to fisheries enforcement?"

Nothing had, of course, but the Coast Guard was a prisoner of its "metric of success," as Webster calls it. When that metric declined sharply, enforcement was assumed to have declined sharply too. The same is about to happen to TSA with the sharp-objects and checkpoint-throughput metrics.

"It's unfortunate, but our two metrics are how many knives did we take away and what's the wait time at the checkpoint?" Naccara says. In its first years, TSA wasn't afraid to boast about these metrics to Congress or the public. But moving to a risk-based approach could send both of them in the wrong direction. Fewer than 12,000 items a month will henceforth be confiscated at Logan, because fewer will be banned from planes. It's unclear what will happen with wait times as more randomness and complexity are injected into the screening process. An increase in secondary screenings, focused on more serious threats, coupled with greater use of behavioral profiling, can lead to longer interviews and detainments, albeit for fewer passengers.

Naccara is trying to supplant those metrics with new onesfor example, arrests based on behavioral profiling. He also tries to highlight the savings from not shutting down a terminal because of a screwdriver found in a carry-on bag. But he admits that it's an "extremely difficult issue," and he worries that the risk concepts will be lost on the public.

Herein lies a classic security conundrumjust as relevant to one of the most serious security threats in the country as to someone buckling up a seat belt in a car: "How do you measure the effectiveness of deterrence?" Naccara asks.

While Rep. Markey introduces his Leave All Blades Behind legislation in Terminal B, Naccara gives a tour of Terminal A's high-tech baggage system, the first of its kind.

The suitcases we passed at the check-in counterall of Terminal A's checked bags, for that mattercome into this room and wend through a four-mile skein of conveyor belts. All of the belts are suspended from the ceiling, crossing paths, dipping over and under each other, diving down to a section along the floor and then rising back up; this must be what a hamster maze looks like to a hamster.

Each bag also passes through one of the seven explosives-detection machines set in the maze. The machines are MRIs for suitcases. If they find a worrisome density or shapeblocks of cheese and jars of peanut butter often set off alarms, as do books and, well, explosive devicesthen they mark the suspicious spot on the bag's MRI image and send the bag along its way, with all the benign bags, until, near the end of the maze, the bags reach the Vertisorter.

The Vertisorter is what it sounds like: a conveyer belt that sorts bags vertically. It tilts down to send a bag to its plane; up to send it to an adjacent room where more TSA screeners receive both the bag and a 3-D color image of its innards, on which the suspicious spot is marked. The screener rotates, flips and zooms the image. He switches to a high-contrast black-and-white view, superior to color for seeing wires. He slices through the 3-D image looking for things hidden inside of other things, the same way a doctor would navigate an image of a lung looking for a tumor. The screener has about a minute to decide whether to send the bag to another person for physical inspection or to return it to the Vertisorter to be sent down to its plane.

Naccara boasts that Logan completed the project on time, in 2002. He says the system has saved the feds tens of millions of dollars, reduced the number of screeners needed at Logan from more than 1,200 to 850, and, most importantly, reduced the risk of crime and terrorism in the air significantly. Far more, he says, than taking away people's Swiss army knives ever will. If he could, Naccara would have every suitcase at Logan snaking through rooms like this one. Then he'd add the suitcase MRI machines at gates to improve screening images there. He'd network the system so that images that trigger alarms could be shared instantly across the airportby TSA, Massport, the airlines, Customs, maybe even the CDC if the threat were potentially biological. All of this would increase security and free up his staff to focus on the core of his agendabehavioral profiling, SPOT.

In Terminal B, Markey is saying that TSA is "taking a gamble" by removing items from the banned list. In Terminal A, Naccara is saying that using TSA's limited resources to confiscate nail clippers from grandmothers is the bigger gamble.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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