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Government Adjusts Airline Passenger Screening Rules

August 14, 2006 at 6:30 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Just a few days after the government implemented strict new rules barring liquids and gels from airplane cabins, the Transportation Security Administration has now relaxed those restrictions somewhat, as the threat level for travel to and from Great Britain has also been lowered. The official in charge of finding the right balance between security and convenience is TSA Chief Kip Hawley. He joins us now.

Welcome, Mr. Hawley.

KIP HAWLEY, Transportation Security Administration Administrator: Thanks, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Explain to us what was changed and why.

KIP HAWLEY: Well, it’s important to know that the security level stayed the same. And what we’re looking for is, based on our learnings of the first day or two, what could we do to smooth out the operation?

And things like a diabetic who would need glucose gel, some prescription medicine, things like that, lipstick, those issues we felt were not a threat, and we wanted to be clear that people could bring them on the aircraft.

GWEN IFILL: So contact lens solution is OK, but a big, old jar of contact lens solution is not?

KIP HAWLEY: That’s correct.

GWEN IFILL: when you say that you didn’t lower the security but the threat was lowered, what’s the difference?

KIP HAWLEY: Well, in the U.K., they moved from critical or their version of red to severe. And that definition is imminent attack under their red to highly likely in their orange. And we wanted to match them with that, that we do feel the threat is very significant and it’s very important for all of us to realize that this is a very serious threat. A week ago, we were at yellow, and now we’re at orange worldwide.

GWEN IFILL: So the change in the rules was mainly to make things move more slowly, not because you perceived any evidence of a lesser threat?

KIP HAWLEY: Well, the imminent attack, there was less indication that it would be happening any moment. It is more that it is a very likely possibility, and we need to have a high level of security to match that.

GWEN IFILL: Any way to know how long that’s going to be in place?

KIP HAWLEY: No, and we’re going to follow the investigation in the U.K. They’re learning things every day. And as we learn more, we evaluate where we are, and we do not have an artificial timetable.

Screening at airports

GWEN IFILL: Has there also been a change in who does the screening?

KIP HAWLEY: No, not that I know of. What do you mean?

GWEN IFILL: What I mean is -- we have read that there have been security agents who were at the gate who have now been moved, say, into baggage screening instead, and you have TSA employees at the gates instead, contractors.

KIP HAWLEY: Well, not that I know of. What we have -- there are several airports that are operated by our private-sector partners, and those are all private sector. But we have -- our TSOs are trained, most of them, in the ability to be a passenger screener, as well as baggage, so we have moved people back and forth. And, in fact, one of the expectations is that there may well be more checked baggage as a result of this so we need to keep that balance.

GWEN IFILL: Is that checked baggage being adequately screened?

KIP HAWLEY: Yes, oh, yes. And we looked very carefully at this particular threat versus checked baggage or air cargo, as well as the passenger. And we believe that this particular threat is directed at the passenger cabin. And we have other ways of maintaining security in the checked bag and cargo.

GWEN IFILL: But there was a report that the General Accounting Office came out with, in July I believe -- or maybe it wasn't July -- yes, it was July -- in which they said it could be strengthened, that the checked baggage could be strengthened.

KIP HAWLEY: Certainly the whole system can be strengthened, and that's what we want to do overall. And it brings up the point of having many layers of security so you're not just depending on one silver bullet but that you have a number of layers that inter-lock so that, no matter which they come, it's not easy for them to get through.

GWEN IFILL: Are there enough transportation security officers on duty? Do you have enough staffing to do all of this extra work?

KIP HAWLEY: I believe we do. I think that we have a very flexible staff. And we're agile, in the sense that our folks are willing to change. In fact, over a very few number of hours on Wednesday night, we changed the entire operating procedure for the agency. And our folks stood it up and, within a day, it works very smoothly.

GWEN IFILL: But you have fewer screeners now than you had at the height?

KIP HAWLEY: We have. We do. And we're a more efficient operation. We've added more technology. And the last time I was here, Gwen, we talked about let's get scissors and small tools out of the prohibited list so that our TSOs can focus on finding IED components. And that is exactly what this threat is, and we've been using the time since I was last here in December to work with our TSOs to get exactly that hands-on training.

Detection devices

GWEN IFILL: There was a report that the Associated Press had in which they said that $6 million had been diverted from trying to detect explosives into other kinds of work and that maybe this was the sort of thing which -- I guess is reporting is and some members of Congress has said that has been shown that the TSA maybe has shifted its priorities in the wrong direction?

KIP HAWLEY: Well, no, we're very focused on improvised explosive devices. It is our top priority. We're spending over $800 million this year in that significant priority.

GWEN IFILL: The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, Republican, was quoted as saying that he believes that maybe Great Britain has its act together more than the United States does when it comes to intelligence for situations like this. How would you respond to that?

KIP HAWLEY: Well, I think this was a great intelligence success. As an operator, I've found the intelligence to be an enormous value for us to get prepared. And the degree to which the U.K. intelligence people worked with the U.S. intelligence people and coordinated it with the operating arms in the U.S. government was, in my view, unprecedented.

GWEN IFILL: The U.K., however, seemed to wait a lot longer to round these folks up than the United States would have. Is that correct? Is that a correct impression?

KIP HAWLEY: I have no basis for knowing one way or the other. In fact, that's a law enforcement decision that they do over there. Bottom line is: It was successful.

GWEN IFILL: There has been some report also that you guys are focusing on perhaps developing a behavioral-detection device?

KIP HAWLEY: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: What's that? Describe that.

KIP HAWLEY: Yes, it's the human, and it's something that happens a lot in law enforcement. But we've developed since 9/11 behavior observation that we've improved as we've gone along and that can, in fact, detect behavior common to somebody who wants to do an attack before they get to the checkpoint.

So we want to be able to pick somebody out before they get to the checkpoint. It's very successful, and we're now deploying it over 12 airports and expect to do much wider after this.

GWEN IFILL: You just look whether they have sweaty palms? You look at the whites in their eyes, what?

KIP HAWLEY: No, it's very scientific, and it looks for involuntary muscle movements. And the more you try not to do it, the more you do it. So it's something that you can't train to evade. And there are very definite markers for it. And they have a checklist, and they go through it. And it has turned out to be very, very effective.

Reaction to threat

GWEN IFILL: How does the Transportation Security Administration protect itself against accusations that you're reactive, that you're in a position to react when you know that the threat has -- only after you know the threat has happened?

KIP HAWLEY: Well, we've focused on improvised explosive devices for a year, and we've had the total focus on our training and getting our folks ready for this. And as you know, it's something that we've spoken out a great deal.

Secretary Chertoff has talked about risk-based priorities. And we have elevated the IED threat to number one at TSA, and that has been our number-one priority for the last year.

GWEN IFILL: So this is the fighting the last war question. You don't think that's what you're doing?

KIP HAWLEY: Not at all. We're trying to figure out, how do we put as many layers as we can so we don't have to predict what the next attack is, that we put in layers that will work against attacks that we expect, as well as attacks that we might not expect?

GWEN IFILL: Kip Hawley, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, thank you very much for joining us.

KIP HAWLEY: Pleasure. Thank you.