Michael Chertoff on the TSA and "Security Theater"

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Last week Boing Boing was invited along with a small group of political bloggers and analysts to a sit-down Q&A with departing Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. I had a chance to ask Secretary Chertoff a few questions about the TSA screening process. (Although had I more time, there would have been plenty of other questions I would have loved to ask, such as why U.S. Customs confiscates laptops; more on that in another post.)

While I will be posting the complete transcript of the interview with everyone's questions (along with the audio recording if anyone is interested), I've excerpted the discussion about the TSA with questions from me and Security Catalyst's Michael Santarcangelo. I've edited the transcript slightly for clarity.

Joel Johnson: What's the number of direct terrorist actions that have been interfered with by TSA screening?

Secretary Chertoff: Here's what I can tell you. I can tell you that we've kept... you know, I don't have them all in my head. We had a case where somebody had bomb components in a piece of luggage they were going to take on. Now, do I know that they would have found some way to assemble it, or do I know that at some stage of the person's flight path, it would not have become the bomb? I don't know that. I do know that you probably wouldn't want to get on that plane and I wouldn't want to get on that plane.

I know that we've kept off weapons. Now, do I know the person who had the weapon was going to use it? No, maybe not. But I know that I'd rather not have that on a plane. Do I know how many people I've deterred? I don't know that because I don't know how many people have said, I'm not going to try to do something because I know there's a high likelihood I'm going to be caught.

What I can tell you is that in the period prior to September 12, 2001, it was a regular, routine issue to have American aircraft hijacked or blown up from time to time, whether it was Lockerbie or TSA or TWA 857 [I believe he meant TWA 847 – Joel] or 9/11 itself. And we haven't had even a serious attempt at a hijacking or bombing on an American plane since then.

[According to Airsafe.com, the last flight previous to 9/11 to be hijacked with fatalities from an American destination was a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight on December 7th, 1987. "Lockerbie" refers to Pan Am Flight 103 which was destroyed by a bomb over Scotland after departing from London Heathrow International Airport on its way to JFK, with screening done — as now — by an organization other than the TSA. TWA Flight 847 departed from Athens (Ellinikon) International Airport, also not under TSA oversight.

While Wikipedia's list of aircraft hijackings may not be comprehensive — I cannot find a complete list from the FAA, which does not seem to list hijackings, including 9/11, in its Accidents & Incidents Data — the last incident of an American flight being hijacked was in 1994, when FedEx Flight 705 was hijacked by a disgruntled employee.

The implication that hijacking or bombing of American airline flights is a regular occurrence is not borne out by history, nor does it follow that increased screening by the TSA at airports has prevented more attacks since 9/11.]

Secretary Chertoff: So, you know, it's a little bit like getting vaccinated against a dangerous illness. You know, we all took polio vaccine when we were kids. Maybe you may not be old enough. (Laughter.) I can't tell you that if I hadn't taken the vaccine, I would have gotten polio. But I can tell you that it is a sensible thing to do. And that's kind of how I view TSA.

[Secretary Chertoff used this same analogy in his interview with Threat Level in August. It implies that terrorism can be cured through prevention, which is obviously not possible.]

Michael Santarcangelo: Down that path, then, how do you separate out going after real risks versus perceived risks? Right? Because as humans, we're not real good at judging risk.

Secretary Chertoff: Yeah. That's a really important question. We try to manage risk by being disciplined and balanced. You know, I'll give you an example.

We put a lot of effort into scanning and screening cargos that come into the United States, cargo containers that come in, because of the concern of a nuclear device or something like that in a cargo container. I think that's been good. It's drawn down the risk to a reasonable level. There's a lot of push to do that, all that, overseas, even before it gets on a ship. And there's a lot of cost and difficulty in that.

So to my view, that may be, at least if you're talking about a port of embarkation like Southampton in a country like Britain, which has a very good intelligence service, that strikes me as perhaps a little bit of overkill. On the other hand, many people who argued for that said not a word about general aviation.

And yet a couple years ago I had a senior executive in a jet leasing service come to me and say, I don't know really who leases my jets. For all I know, someone could get on with a bomb and it could fly into the United States from overseas, detonate the bomb over a city, and that's that. So as a consequence, we started to say, let's raise the bar on general aviation. So we put rules out on advanced screening of passengers, and we're setting up agreements to do preclearance overseas.

I try to balance, you know, and I think we all try to do the best we can, with a sense of reasonableness. We don't try to make the architecture of the New York subway system, in terms of screening, be the same as the as the airport.

Now, with all of that, I have to say perception is not entirely inadmissible. A lot of what is important in security is public confidence, and visible security adds a certain dimension to public confidence which I don't think you can underestimate. And so I think we have sometimes been visible in doing things. I mean, I raised the question at some point, like, why did the National Guard get posted at the airport? Particularly we do less of that now. And, you know, part of it is I guess if someone were to act out, you'd have an additional show of force. But part of it is public confidence, the public being confident.

The flip side of it is if you look at Katrina, I think one of the issues in Katrina was the lack of a lot of visible presence of the authorities on the ground and that creating a sense of disorder. So one of the lessons I learned is the perception of order and security is actually an important operational element in establishing order and security. It's a kind of a corollary of what Rudy Giuliani did in New York with the broken windows theory, that if you establish that breaking windows and graffiti will not be tolerated, you actually generally drive down crime because you create a sense of order.

Joel Johnson: Sir, I was really trying to avoid using this term at all. But are you actually saying that security theater is an important aspect of actual security?

Secretary Chertoff: No. I don't think it's theater because I think the person who says this is kind of unrealistic and is kind of trying to be provocative. I don't think they're doing things for no reason to make sense, but I think understanding that visible security has a role to play is important. It is a deterrent.

Joel Johnson: Well, sure. But theater also means...theater has a purpose, too, to express a meaning.

Secretary Chertoff: Yeah. I mean, the problem is, I think the term is not meant to be...it's meant to be pejorative. It's meant to suggest that it's like a puppet show. But I would have to say I think visible security does have a role to play because I think it does inspire a sense of confidence.

It also is a deterrent because, generally speaking, people, whether they want to smuggle things in or commit crimes or commit acts of terror, are deterred if they think there's a reasonable likelihood of apprehension, and therefore, particularly if you mix it up, if you do random things, if you change things so they're unpredictable, I think that that actually enhances security.

Joel Johnson: But if the point of terrorism is to scare people, and if the easiest way to scare people is by killing them randomly, if you don't have the ability to put security everywhere, I mean, it still seems like you're ultimately inconveniencing people with a lot of useless screening and useless or most-of-the-time useless security, but not actually able to ever stomp down the threats.

Secretary Chertoff: Well, first of all, you do try to stomp down the threats because you try to eliminate them overseas. You try to catch the people when they come in. But what layered security recognizes is that no one layer is perfect. So what you do when you have screening is, first of all, you do find things. I mean, we find people bring on things, and we have found people coming in across the border with things like how to make an IED. And, you know, it's important to catch that. But we also deter people because we raise the barrier to them carrying out an attack because they worry about it.

Now, is it perfectly successful? No. So I'll give you an example that I sometimes use.

The best police chiefs in America, guys like Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton, they have not eliminated crime in their cities. Does that mean that having police is useless? It scares people, you know, because you have a lot of police presence, and it costs a lot of tax money because you haven't stomped out crime? No. You've reduced it. We have reduced the risk of terror. We have not eliminated the risk. And an argument that I find fallacious is one that challenges all security measures because none of them is a perfect security measure.

[The complete transcript of the interview is available in this Google Doc.]

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