An interview with Lee R. Kair, assistant administrator for security operations at the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
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.
Q. What are some of the outlying risks or other security challenges TSA faces?
A. Within TSA we are constantly looking at the intelligence to assess what the threat is, and continuing to be very agile and changing our posture to combat it. I think you saw that right after the liquids plot in 2006. TSA was very able to immediately change its policies regarding liquids, as an example, not just here in the United States but working with our partners across the world to implement procedures that mitigated that specific threat. One of the things that we are constantly working on is understanding what are the threats to aviation and changing our policy as necessary to mitigate that specific threat.
I think it’s also important to note that we expect that our adversary is going to study us and attempt to use our process against us. So we want to make our process easy for a passenger to go through, but very difficult for our adversary to predict what their experience is going to be. So one of the tenets of our security posture is the idea or unpredictability, which is very different from randomness. “Random” implies that you come to the airport and the might conduct any one of several different procedures. “Unpredictable” means that we know what process we should be carrying out, but that the person watching it does not know what to expect when they go through that process. So we’ve embedded that throughout our security layers, and it’s one of the major tenets of the way we handle the insider threat, If a person is studying our process and attempting to use that process against us, then the more unpredictable we are in the way that we handle that security screening process, the more difficult it will be for them to get through the entire 20 layers.
Q. What are some of the biggest challenges posed by legal or administrative mandates?
A. I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge but what I will say is that we have a variety of different laws and enacting legislation and other types of requirements that are placed on us, and so it’s a very large operation with 450 airports as well as other modes of transportation. We are working very hard at implementing a variety of different security strategies in multiple modes of transportation, and it’s all about good relationships with all of your stakeholders, so that you can work collaboratively and cooperatively to come up with a common goal of good security in all modes of transportation.
Q. What could TSA do better?
A. We have an outstanding workforce. And that’s one of the things that I really learned as the FSD down in Orlando, is that the TSA attracts outstanding people. So what we’re really trying to do is continue to work with our front-line workforce and provide a place where they want to come and work for a very long period of time and have a career at TSA, and be able to progress through the ranks and go from being a brand new TSO to being a FSD or even to my job at some point. So I think it’s really important to focus on the officer. We can have all kinds of great technology—which is great for us to have out there—but having the officer out there to understand the behaviors that are coming through as well as to operate the sometimes complex equipment, I think is critical for us.
The other thing that we’re really focused on right now is working with the traveling public so that they understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, which is kind of what we talked about before with the Ad Council and some other things we’re doing out there with signage and communication in the checkpoint, and training our officers in how to communicate with passengers as they’re coming through, to reduce that stress as their going through so that they’re really part of the security solution with us, and that it’s not an adversarial relationship between the traveling public and the TSA.
Q. How does seek to TSA maintain the morale of the TSO workforce?
A. A lot of things affect morale, and I’ll tell you just a few of the major ones. One of them is ensuring that the officers can come to TSA and have a very rewarding position that they can have over the long term. Most of the people that I’ve talked to that work as an officer on the line, they come to TSA because of a sense of mission, they view their job rightfully as a public service. And so you have to keep them motivated and recognizing that their job has purpose and that they can stay here for the long term and have career progression.
The other thing that I think is important is giving them great training, and this is one of the most trained and most tested workforces in the federal government. And to the extent that we give them training that makes this a fulfilling job for them I think that really impacts their morale. And also having the infrastructure in place to be able to handle employee issues. I think we’ve done a lot of work in that area so that we can resolve conflict, you know even with the passengers out there and working and training or workforce on how to have that engagement with the passengers and to reduce stress I think really does affect their morale, because quite frankly I think if you have an officer out there who is every day dealing with the traveling public, the more that we can work with the traveling public to reduce their stress, it really does affect the morale of our officers as well.
Q. Beyond the inherently public-private nature of its mission, is the TSA engaged in any major collaborations with the private sector?
A. We interact with the private sector in lots of different ways, the first way is really as you’re probably aware, the way we handle our contracts and grants and other transaction authority agreements. We spend over $3 billion a year with the private sector just through the procurement and acquisition process. On the security operations side, the FSD at each of the sites one of his primary roles is really that interaction or partnership with the private sector in the region. As an FSD you’re reaching out to the airport authority, the airlines, the governor’s office, the mayor’s office, all of the different types of entities out there, quasi-public or even private sector in that local region. And that’s just kind of one of the core functions of an FSD.
Another way that we interact with the private sector is through our VIPR teams. We’ve done literally thousands of VIPR missions where we work with private sector transportation venues and we assist them by augmenting them in a very public and visible way to deter someone who might be in that venue, and also to deter any type of surveillance, and to increase that type of unpredictability that I talked about earlier. That’s been a very effective program, and it really focuses on a common security goal with those partners out there.
A couple of the other ways that we’re working with other people outside of TSA is working with DHS partners, particularly around emergency response. We have a lot of focus on that now, and in fact during the hurricanes that hit Texas, TSA deployed over 1,000 officers in support of Gustav and Ike to support FEMA as well as the local emergency responders in their points of distribution as well as in helping them to recover out there and we thought that was very successful. And we are also working to better integrate at the state level with state entities, particularly in like the state emergency operation centers or with the homeland security advisors for the governors, we want to make sure that the TSA is as engaged and partners with them as much as possible so that in the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist event, we have trained together and that we already have those relationships built so that they’re ready if needed.
Q. What should members of the private sector know about TSA that they might not?
A. Just that we look forward to working with them. One of the things that I’ve learned from working with TSA over the past several years is that it’s an extremely collaborative organization and we work very closely with the private sector and with other state and local governments to meet our goals, that our regulated parties meaning the air carriers or rail lines or whatever are typically private entities, and while we may have a regulatory responsibility over them, we also have to work collaboratively with them to come up with that kind of common security posture between the two of us.