The story you tell about the TSA is the birth of an organization not only trying to become a risk-based agency but an intelligence-driven one as well. Do you consider TSA intel-driven and integrated into the U.S. intelligence community?
Yes. I think that’s the best thing the agency does. I think TSA Administrator John Pistole puts a tremendous amount of his personal time into ensuring that intelligence is integrated into the operations that TSA carries out. That is something the agency gets very little credit for doing. They will get intelligence from any of the agencies from the U.S. government and be able to convert it into Federal Air Marshal missions within an hour. If they’re concerned about something—like that next-generation underwear bomb that came up in May—TSA can put air marshals on flights coming to and from a particular area. They can do that on a dime, anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the public only sees TSA taking away scissors and doing pat downs.
The TSA has begun to gradually expand its voluntary known-traveler program, called PreCheck. Do you think this program is enough to keep the lines moving and avoid bottlenecks as more and more people fly?
I think they should do PreCheck for everybody. TSA gets the basic information on everybody. There’s nothing about a frequent flier that makes them more or less likely to be a terrorist. There are plenty of al Qaeda people who are frequent fliers. I think it’s a great start, and you have to start somewhere, but the goal ought to be to say this is our system; we’re going to allow anyone to enroll.
In your opinion, was the integration of full-body scanners into the checkpoint as the primary screening technology necessary, especially when the GAO and researchers have called into question their effectiveness at detecting nonmetallic threats?
Full-body scanners are useless as secondary screening. If you’re not going to use them for primary screening, you shouldn’t buy them. Everyone in al Qaeda knows how to avoid getting sent to secondary. But I think the scanner is great. And for people with artificial hips and the like, it’s a lifesaver. You never have to stop for a pat down.
What made full-body scanners more controversial was the pat down that went with them. The sense that if you didn’t go through the scanner, we were going to give you a very thorough pat down. I think the pat down has been the tipping point that turned the public against the TSA.
What is Project Newton?
That’s a hundred-dollar question. After the 2006 liquid bomb plot, we had an immediate national need to figure out what was going on with these explosives. We reached out to the national laboratories—Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos—and asked for their help. In that process, we discovered that they had incredible modeling capabilities. With the participation of Boeing and Airbus, we could completely model what explosive would do what damage in what position in what specific airplane.
We also discovered that the certification standards that drove us to buy all those expensive explosives detection system machines were based on an old model Boeing 737. The planes in use today are much sounder structurally. Therefore, the bomb detection equipment was set to detect amounts of explosives that could not blow up an airplane. Project Newton was about determining whether we should change our certification standards so that TSA was buying machines that cost $200,000 instead of a million.
The whole program was a classified, compartmented program. It got into all the details about which bomb could do what. It would tell you precisely what you needed to protect against. It allowed us to say we know a liquid hydrogen peroxide bomb is their best bomb, and it will work, and they know how to make it, so we have to take that off the table. We also know that certain other bombs do not work. And so Project Newton was the most important technology program at TSA.
You’re talking in the past tense. What happened to Project Newton?
I don’t know exactly. I do know that it’s dead. It died a quiet death around mid-to-late 2011 in a budget cut, according to a former colleague of mine at TSA. The problem is no one wants to go on the record and explain exactly what happened and say something that could essentially make them unemployable.