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Newsmaker: TSA Director James Loy

December 31, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: A new year comes into being tonight at midnight. So does a new world of security at U.S. airports, which must from then on screen all checked baggage for explosives.

Here now for a newsmaker interview is the director of the new Transportation Security Administration, Admiral James Loy. His agency is charged with enforcing the new screening requirement, among most other things, involved in protecting the nation’s airplanes, trains, and seaports.

Admiral, welcome.

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: Thank you, sir. Good to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: Midnight tonight, the deadline is going to be met by all the U.S. airports?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: That’s the fact. I was just over with our Boeing contractors and our leadership core just this afternoon as the count-up was occurring which was a big tote board in their office reflecting airports going green across the country as the installation was completed and our explosive detection capability came online.

JIM LEHRER: I understand 90 percent of the detection capability is through machines, right?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: That’s correct, sir. The Congressional mandate is for us to reach toward 100% capability of electronic explosive detection capability. Of course the Congress then gave us an out, if you will, which is to say that at those very few airports where we can’t get all the way to 100 percent by electronic screening they approved a very limited list of other tools that could be used in an interim measure until we can gain 100 percent at all of our airports.

JIM LEHRER: Tools include sniffing dogs and just — people just inspecting, right — personal inspection?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: Yes, sir. Hand searches, K-9 teams, a surge of ETD capability – that’s the electronic trace detection systems — that we can surge into an airport which needs the additional capability there and positive passenger bag match which has been part of the system from the very beginning after 9/11/01.

JIM LEHRER: Positive bag match means that everybody on an airplane… I mean every bag on an airplane has to have a passenger and they have to have matched by some system, right?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: That’s correct, sir. And, of course, in the older days, that notion was a very, very sound one in the sense of 100% compliance. Now, of course, with the suicide bomber as a reality we have to not count on positive passenger bag match nearly to the degree we used to be able to do.

JIM LEHRER: Now, at midnight tonight, does this mean literally what it appears to mean — that every piece of baggage that’s checked at a U.S. airport is going to be inspected for explosives?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: Yes, sir. Those two million passengers a day and about two million pieces of luggage a day will all be secured. This is really another milestone in what our design work here is in terms of a layered system at our… in aviation security across the country. I have commented on it as from the curb to the cockpit we want to provide multiple layers, redundant layers, if you will, such that we’re not totally dependent on any one of them. But the Congress in their original legislation required two things to be done at the 100 percent level with dates certain. One was 11/19 back in November when we were required to have our passenger check points fully staffed. We met that deadline.

JIM LEHRER: By federal employees.

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: By a federalized work force, that is correct.


ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: Then the later one which is our 36th mandate under that law having been met on time in very tight budget circles which is tonight, as you just described. And that is the explosive detection capability.

JIM LEHRER: Give us a feel as to what kind of ground was covered other… over what period of time. In other words how much baggage percentage-wise was being inspected at a given time compared with 100 percent as of midnight tonight?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: It’s a great question because I don’t think an awful lot of Americans understand that on 9/10/01 less than five percent of our luggage was being electronically screened for inclusion in the belly of a passenger airliner.

Literally over the course of these last four or five months after all of the design work was done in the first several months after 9/10 or after 9/11/01, we fielded an relatively awesome task force, actually almost 100,000 committed Americans either as TSA employees or as contractors working for the Boeing Seaman’s team which was our principle contractor for this particular work.

Just in the last couple of weeks 30,000 or 40,000 construction workers in our airports across the country finishing this job so as to make the deadline tonight.

JIM LEHRER: All right now, the passenger screening, how is that working? What’s your feeling for it as far as the way it works now?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: I think we’re getting very good results.

I think our first real test was the Thanksgiving holiday season. I have commented that if you were waiting in line at an airport during the Thanksgiving holiday it was either at a men’s room or at a Starbucks kiosk. It was not at one of our security check points. It ran very, very smoothly.

We have committed to this work approximately 56,000 screeners at this point, about 33,000 passenger screeners, 23,000 baggage screeners. And these young Americans and older Americans that have stepped forward for this work, we’re just enormously proud of. We’ve invested about 100 hours of training in each and every one of them — compares to somewhere between four and eight hours that had been the norm when the airlines was running this particular operation back before 9/11.

JIM LEHRER: Give us some feel for who these people are. Where did they come from? Why do they want to do this work? Who are they?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: I think one of the most amazing things to me, Jim, as I’ve gone around the country — and tried to get to 30 or 40 airports in the seven months that I’ve had this assignment — the common bond is — like all of us we’re searching for in the immediate wake of the tragedies of 9/11 — these Americans were looking for a way to make a contribution.

And they found their way to make a contribution by being screeners and managers of screeners ran… and federal security directors at our airports and the rest of the folks that compose the Transportation Security Administration staff.

I spent 38 years in uniform as a Coast Guard officer and never thought that I would imagine that I could find a workplace that was in the same commitment process as the ethos that determined what we did for a living for all those years. But I indeed have found that with these young and older Americans that compose the TSA task force. I’m enormously proud of them. Two people that really deserve some attention here because of their vision at the very beginning are President Bush and Secretary Mineta. In both instances neither of them has wavered from this enormous task that we undertook almost a year ago and are able now to be able to claim completion tonight.

JIM LEHRER: But is there an average profile of these people? Those of us who travel on airplanes and go through these lines, is there a profile, an average profile of these people who are looking at us and putting batons on us and all that sort of stuff?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: First of all, the Congress stipulated some certain requirements: American citizenship, high school equivalency, the ability to do physical things associated with the baggage screening and what have you; there was a language qualification, there was a profile associated with the specific requirements that were ladled to us by the Congress.

Beyond that, this common bond of commitment to their work is what I find to be the most common link among them all. And beyond that, we were able to build a work force and shape a culture from a blank sheet of paper — an enormous leadership opportunity that I find just as gratifying as anything I’ve ever done.

So it’s an enormously diverse work force. We have twice the African-American contingent in percentage-wise in our work force than the demographics of our country at large; twice the Hispanics, twice the Asian-Americans. So the challenge associated with forging that kind of a ‘look like’ America work force at the other end of the day is something we’re also enormously proud of.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go back to something you said, which was the purpose of all of this. You called it a layered approach. As we sit here tonight all the layers that you were… that were in your mandate, in your agency’s mandate, how safe is it to fly through an American airport right now?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: It’s a wonderful question. I would offer two thoughts about that. First of all, to the traveling American public, I would say you enter a system that is infinitely safer than we have ever been in any time in our lives.

It’s a better perimeter security at airports. It’s much greater attention to detail of roving law enforcement officers at airports. It’s about thousands of federal air marshals on flights that had never been there before. It’s about hardened cockpit doors; it’s about the passenger checkpoints that you’re going through and the security regimes that are part of that.

And, now this milestone met tonight adds the notion of explosive detection for baggage going on those passenger airliners as well. So that idea of a layered system with multiple opportunities to catch the bad guy who would have mischief in his heart and in his mind is something that we’ve tried to design into the system from the very beginning.

JIM LEHRER: An obvious question: If this system had been in effect on 9/11, 2001, would they have caught these hijackers?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: I would like to think that’s exactly what would have occurred. We have learned lessons, of course, from the terrible experience of 9/11.

In each of those lessons, we have attempted to retrofit guidance and protocols into our work force and into the design work of this multiple- layered system that would have done exactly what you just asked for — an ability to detect those very 19 terrorists who did such grievous harm to our country on 9/11.

But as we look forward, we must understand that this work is just beginning. Yes, this is a deadline imposed on us by the Congress, but it’s also a milestone on the way to what I’d call a continuous improvement quest that we must be about for the rest of the time we do this work. We have to find our way inside the decision cycle of the terrorists and be there when he wants to go there.

That’s a matter of never being satisfied with today’s system and understanding that whatever we’re doing today, as proud as we are of it, it’s not good enough for tomorrow and we have to be on a continuous improvement quest.

JIM LEHRER: That is based on the theory that the terrorists are thinking of new things to do, new ways to do it.

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: There’s no doubt in mind that somewhere in those Afghan caves or wherever they are hiding there is a gaming process going on in the minds of the terrorists to figure out precisely what we are doing and what is their way around it. We must be about the business of exercising, checking and testing the system routinely, which we are doing.

That is all about the business of being better tomorrow than we are today.

JIM LEHRER: There’s been much discussion, as you know, Admiral, about the alert system that the federal government has instituted — local law enforcement people and ordinary citizens have said, ‘what is this?’ — they don’t understand it. It’s been confusing, whatever.

Do you have your own separate alert system or do you go to the same one that the rest of us go with?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: As you might imagine, Jim, on the first of March my organization finds its way to the new Department of Homeland Security. Governor Ridge’s ethos associated with the five level alert system will be a framing device for the new department’s work.

While I was at Coast Guard I spent my last days months in uniform designing the beginnings of the maritime security system for our country. And we tried to think our way through three levels of a system, maritime security condition sort of one, two, and three.

We align those now with the yellow, orange and red levels of the new alert system that the Office of Homeland Security has put out.

My sense in that regard is that we Americans really must understand and begin to live with the reality of a very different security environment maybe for the rest of our lives. And that to me has oriented that today’s normalcy is not about blue and green in the system. It’s sort of at that yellow level. And it will be a long time before we’re lower than that.

JIM LEHRER: I didn’t ask the question precisely. What I meant was, do your folks — the people at the airports doing whatever their jobs are, whether they’re air marshals or whether they’re screening or whatever for explosives or passengers — is there an internal agency alert system that goes beyond the other?

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: Absolutely. We identify at each of the levels of the alert system for Governor Ridge’s multicolored system those procedures and those protocols that would be associated with tightening up our system as the alert system escalates.

JIM LEHRER: You have your own….


JIM LEHRER: Your own set of reactions.


JIM LEHRER: Well, Admiral, thank you very much. Congratulations on meeting the midnight deadline. We’ll talk to you again soon.

ADMIRAL JAMES LOY: Jim, thanks very much for the opportunity.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir.