Lee Kair has served as the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) assistant administrator for security operations since October 2008. He is responsible for daily operations involving approximately 48,000 agency employees at more than 450 airports nationwide; also managing program planning; regulatory compliance; partnerships with stakeholders in other agencies, sectors, and transportation modes; and the development of strategic plans for future TSA operations. Previously, Kair was the TSA’s Federal Security Director (FSD) in Orlando, Florida, the senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official responsible for transportation security of aircraft, airports and other transportation facilities in their region. Kair has several other positions in TSA, serving as executive director of the Office of Intra-Agency Operations, which tackled pressing strategic issues for the agency. He also served as assistant administrator for acquisition, managing centralized acquisition support to all of the nation’s federalized airports and other modes of transportation. Prior to joining TSA, Kair served with the DHS Office of the Chief Procurement Officer as director of strategic sourcing and acquisition systems. There, during the departmental stand-up Kair established the DHS Strategic Sourcing Program to develop corporate sourcing strategies for goods and services procured by multiple agency organizations. Before DHS’s establishment Kair held a variety of positions in multiple agencies including the Coast Guard, Air Force, and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. He has served as a warranted contracting officer responsible for major weapon systems, and managed several branch-wide and government-wide e-business systems. Kair earned his Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Florida State University and his Master of Science in government contract management from the Air Force Institute of Technology.
Q. Which of TSA’s activities fall under your authority?
A. There are two operational components of TSA. One is the office of law enforcement and the Federal Air Marshal Service, which handle all of the law enforcement functions, and then you have my office, the Office of Security Operations, which handles the uniformed transportation security officers (TSOs) out in the field at the checkpoints, the federal security directors (FSDs), the aviation security inspectors who inspect for compliance with the air carriers, our canine program, and in other modes of transportation the surface inspectors, things of that nature.
Q. How has your professional background helped you in your current job?
A. I’ve been at this job a year, and prior to that I was federal security director in Orlando, Florida, which is a large category X airport. So that gave me a great field perspective on the issues that impact the traveling public, particularly in a large destination city, as well as for our officer workforce, which is kind of the meat-and-potatoes of our organization. So I did that for two and a half years and really enjoyed my time down there. Prior to that I worked as the executive director ofTSA’s Office of Intra-Agency Operations, which is a fancy way of saying I ran the agency’s “war room” for former Administrator Kip Hawley. It was shortly after Mr. Hawley came in as the administrator that he established that to really put some adrenaline behind his high-priority initiatives. If he had a strategic challenge he would bring everybody in the agency together in the war room to try and solve the problem. Some of the things we worked on were, for example, improved detection of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and the behavior detection officer (BDO) program came out of there, as did the bomb appraisal officer (BAO) program, and many of our workforce initiatives
Q. What are some of the biggest lessons of TSA’s first eight years, and how are they reflected in the field?
A. When TSA first stood up, our primary focus was on taking over the responsibility for screening passengers from the airlines and their contractors. It was a Herculean effort and a tremendous amount of work that had to go into meeting Congress’s mandates. So the early first couple of years was just putting in all the infrastructure nationwide. That was our focus. Now that we have that infrastructure in place and we’ve been able to meet all of those mandates, our focus is really on trying to focus not just on the checkpoint, but to increase the overall security posture of the entire infrastructure. We work very closely with our partners out there like the airport authorities and the airlines to recognize what the vulnerabilities pose the highest risks at specific venues, and we focus on those collaboratively with our stakeholders including law enforcement. So I think you’re seeing the TSA as still a relatively young organization, but we’re maturing very rapidly, and we’re continuing to put in different aspects of security so that we’re not solely focused on checkpoint operations.
Q. Has TSA measured the effectiveness of its public education efforts? What methods are most successful and what were some major lessons learned?
A. What we’ve learned is that to the extent that the passengers understand why we’re asking them to do something, they’ve become part of the security solution, so in turn that solution becomes very effective. So we’ve partnered for example with the Ad Council to help educate the traveling public, and they’re helping us with messaging and advertising, so that we can explain that we’re not worried about a bottle of water, but we are worried about an explosive that looks like a bottle of water. And we have to explain to passengers what our rationale is and why we’re doing things that we are out there. If you engage the traveling public throughout the process they’re much more receptive to going through the security process.
In keeping with that over the past year, we’ve actually re-trained our entire workforce through a program called ENGAGE! and COACH!, where we are emphasizing their engagement with the customer, how that relates to security, and how you can calm the traveler coming though the security checkpoint so that if there are anomalies, they’re more apparent to us. It helps our behavior detection officers, it helps calm the chaos so that we can focus more on security.
Q. Has TSA assessed the effectiveness of ENGAGE! and COACH! in the field?
A. All you have to do is look at some of the recent studies that have gone out there on customers’ perceptions of TSA. So for example, the Partnership for Public Service and Gallup Consulting released a report on Americans’ attitudes toward the federal government. This was just last December I believe, and basically what they found was that 70 percent of respondents ranked the federal government’s performance at our nation’s airports as “good” or “excellent.” It highlights that the general public is receptive and likes the experience that they are seeing with TSA, and I think that helps make them part of the process of security so that it’s a joint effort of making sure that everyone is safe. And it also helps us if a passenger in the environment sees something, they’re much more likely to identify something that is an anomaly to a security professional, either TSA or local law enforcement. So it makes them more part of the solution.
Q. What is the status of the BDO program, and what is its outlook for the future?
A. As I mentioned, in one of my previous jobs I was involved in the original deployment of the BDO program, and I’m convinced that it’s a very effective program at identifying people who are showing signs of deception. Suspicious behavior just means that they may pose a threat and we’re not quite sure what that threat is, but it’s a way for us to focus our efforts to ensure that we put the right security measures in place to make sure that that person showing signs of deception is not a threat to aviation security.
So as an example, when I was the FSD in Orlando, it was actually a BDO who identified the passenger who was bringing in the components of an IED with him down to Jamaica. And we have many other examples where the behavior detection officer identifies people who are trying to do things that are suspicious and that are indicators that it’s been a very effective program for us.
Q. How is TSA addressing potential “insider” threats from within the transportation workforce?
A. Our entire strategy is that we want to have multiple layers of security that work together to mitigate the aviation threat. We don’t want to have one static layer being the checkpoint or any other layer that by itself would be 100 percent effective. So our strategy is to have multiple layers of security that work almost like a combination lock so that if you were to try to carry out a terrorist attack, you’d have to traverse many different layers.
From the insider perspective, we have vetting programs where we want to ensure that those people working in the aviation environment are properly vetted for their background. We also have random screening that goes on all over the airport so that if you are an employee you’d have the expectation that you could be screened at any point in the non-public areas of the airport. We also look from a regulatory standpoint to work with the carriers as well as the airport authorities to ensure that we know who workers are, where they’re able to go, and when they’re there. We have the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, which is a program where we’ll work with other federal law enforcement agencies or the airport authority itself to be very random and unpredictable in patrols, for both employees as well as the traveling public.
We actually have 20 different layers of security that a passenger has to go through from the time they book a ticket all the way until they’re onboard an aircraft and then in the air, and we have similar types of layers for our potential insiders that are employees working at the airport.