Thursday, November 15, 2007

Two impossible things before breakfast

Yesterday was a surreal experience. I testified before the House Homeland Security Committee with Kip Hawley, the TSA Administrator, about the recently surfaced April 2006 TSA management email that clearly by its terms was intended to alert screeners to covert testing being conducted at the time by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General. In "Alice in Wonderland " fashion, Hawley claimed that the words didn't mean what they said. Without any evidence to substantiate it, he claimed that the sender thought the covert teams might not be legitimate government testers but Al Qaeda operatives probing the system for weaknesses. There was no mention of Al Qaeda or terrorists in the email. The testers were described as being from DOT or the FAA, and it's true that neither agency is now authorized to test aviation security. But, reading the message in full, it's clear on its face that the sender meant to give screener's the heads up so as to improve their performance on a legitimate government security test. Contradicting himself, Hawley continued to call the sending of the message a "mistake," and to applaud the swift recall of the message. If the email was meant not as a tip off to compromise a legitimate test but to alert screeners to a terrorist probe, what was the mistake in sending it, and why was it recalled? And, why, by the way, has TSA not released the recall message? Clearly, the message was recalled because somebody figured out that tipping off the screeners to a legitimate test, once it inevitably leaked out, would be hugely embarrassing to TSA.

The second impossible thing Hawley insisted upon was the consistently poor performance of screeners in spotting concealed weapons (even, by the way, according to insiders, when screeners are tipped off) was more of a good thing than a bad thing. Screeners are missing things because they're constantly tested, and the tests are intentionally being made harder and harder. Indeed so, and that's as it should be. Terrorists (or, at least, the ones we need most to worry about) will be wily about concealing weapons, not amateurish, so we want the tests to be as "real world" as possible. But, it can't be a good thing that screeners keep missing concealed weapons year after year, time after time, investigation after investigation. Just today, TSA's before another House committee defending itself against the latest GAO report indicating a failure to spot concealed bombs (consistently, at 19 airports around the country, this time).

I'm reminded of the Alice in Wonderland quote about being asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast. At least TSA's asking us to believe only two impossible things!