Steve Lord is the director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO). He is a recognized expert on the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) passenger, checked baggage, and air cargo screening systems, and he regularly discusses these issues before Congress and industry forums. Before his appointment to GAO’s senior executive service, he led GAO’s work on a number of key international security and finance programs. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, an M.B.A. from George Mason University, and an M.S. in national security strategy from the National War College. He also completed the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard University in May 2008. Lord spoke to Security Management about his responsibilities as the TSA’s watchdog, his worries about Department of Homeland Security (DHS) waste and mismanagement, how the TSA has improved over the years, and where it can get better.
As a government watchdog, how is your relationship with the TSA?
I view my role as an honest broker. GAO is the research and investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, so GAO is technically part of the legislative branch. We have broad oversight responsibilities over many agencies. Basically our job is to help the Congress do oversight of TSA programs and make sure taxpayer money is efficiently and effectively spent.
TSA has to be one of the most publicly maligned agencies within the federal government. What worries you the most about TSA?
They’ve done a lot of good things in terms of standing up an agency from scratch. They had to hire a large federal work force. They had to give people training and implement new standard operating procedures. But the one thing I still worry about, which is consistent with the GAO’s broader concerns at DHS, is the acquisition process used to oversee billions of dollars of new technology spending.
DHS has set up an elaborate governance structure where all major buys have to go before an acquisition review board, designed to independently assess the estimated cost, planned schedules, and expected performance for any system exceeding $1 billion in total cost. Thus, the oversight board plays a very important role in overseeing the major buys for each DHS component agency, including TSA. However, TSA and DHS have not always adhered to the established process, such as obtaining and documenting the required approval before making purchases. As a consequence, DHS does not always have a clear understanding of how much these systems will cost and what capabilities they will deliver—this is not a best practice. So we help identify ways that TSA can spend its money more wisely through better acquisitions and planning. The good news is that most of our reports are public and include many important recommendations to ensure that the American taxpayer is getting a better bang for their buck. TSA also concurs with most of them. Thus, I think we’re having a positive impact on its programs and helping ensure that taxpayer money is spent more effectively.
In your opinion, what TSA program has been the most successful?
To coincide with the anniversary of 9-11, we put out a comprehensive report that looked at the entire department, including progress on the transportation security side. We reported progress being made in a number of areas. For example, a key one is the prescreening of passengers, known as Secure Flight. Before 9-11, travelers could buy a ticket anywhere and at any time and get on an aircraft. Now when you buy a ticket, they run your name against a terrorist watch list, and if you’re on the No-Fly List, you’re not allowed to board. That’s a big improvement over the prior process, and TSA has assumed that responsibility from the carriers to ensure consistency. The carriers used to be responsible for doing all the vetting. It took several missteps and many months of efforts, but ultimately, TSA came up with a system that works and seems to be functioning effectively.
Conversely, what TSA program do you have the most apprehension about?
Again on the technology, TSA has a mixed record of procuring and deploying new technologies. I’m sure you’re aware of the infamous puffer machines where TSA purchased the technology and deployed it before adequately testing it in the field. The GAO is a big proponent of operational testing and evaluation before fielding any new technology to help ensure that it works properly. The TSA didn’t go through that with the puffers. Hopefully, they learned an important lesson.