An Opinion: TSA—Infancy to Maturity?

By Dee Armstrong

As my first contribution to American Journal, I am writing my opinion about something familiar and important. My life, along with so many others, changed forever on September 11, 2001. I, for one, will never forget. A little history narrative can’t be too painful once in a while, can it? No more painful than watching today’s political climate hurl us into patriotic depression.

My view of the stand-up of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) might be a bit different than what you believe, what the media reported, and what the history books reflect or will reflect.

Congress issued a knee-jerk reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I see that reaction as elected officials trying to appease their constituents’ fears and make themselves shine as efficient and effective leaders. Their political show of power at that emotionally fragile time left the country with a false sense of security, needlessly cost the taxpayers tons of money, and clearly demonstrated the difference between politics and security. I write in past tense, but it carries on today.

Most everyone finds the TSA’s varied processes at our nation’s airports tedious or inconvenient, at best. I’ve always felt that I’d rather have TSA at the checkpoint than have nothing there. (The screeners are always shocked when I thank them for being there.) I’m comforted that the process is different at each airport—common sense tells me that terrorists look for patterns. We don’t want to make it easier for them to infiltrate our security, regardless of our opinion on how effective or ineffective TSA may be. Let’s keep them guessing. 

Employee #18 and the issue of common sense—or lack of it

By November 2001, Congress had passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) in record-breaking speed in response to September 11th. Unfortunately, in that rush to project a political image, it collectively overlooked common sense. It demanded that security at the airports be federalized, as if any federal agency could do a better job than a contractor. The federal government shouldn’t be “doing” work but rather writing effective contracts and overseeing work to be sure it’s done to contract satisfaction. Parents shouldn’t be doing their children’s homework. They should be overseeing the process to be sure it’s done, and done correctly.

The other aspect of ATSA I found nonsensical was the one-year deadline that Congress gave TSA to federalize all the commercial airports by November 2002. What successful business mastermind would take on the formation of a security company, from scratch—zero—nothing, and plan to hire and train 50,000-plus employees, spread them nationwide, coast to coast, in one year? Especially with the nation’s transportation security as the company’s mission.

When recruited for TSA February 2002, I became employee #18, a part of a newborn organization with the very best of intentions to prevent or deter another such horrific attack on our homeland. I was brought into federal service on an emergency hire process, sealed with nothing more than a handshake, along with a dozen or so others from the private sector. This was so different from the usual paper-heavy hiring practice of the federal government. Being just “born,” the TSA had no infrastructure. Those who came to the call were ready to serve for all the right reasons. The nation was united as only an unforgiving tragedy could unite.

Sacrifices of TSA’s “Parent” Patriots

Those early-on executives leading the charge at headquarters and the leaders and screeners in airports around the country were working 100-plus hours a week, many sleeping in their cars, with no mechanism for travel reimbursement. The Department of Transportation took on some of the initial TSA infrastructure, such as payroll, but even that effort took time to establish. So many TSA founding fathers and mothers, as “parents” of this newly born infant, went without paychecks for a while, along with minimal sleep and food. Although I was hired as a speechwriter for TSA’s Under Secretary, I did a variety of additional tasks—anything that needed doing, such as making copies (and fixing the copy machine), developing PowerPoint presentations, setting up filing systems, hunting down supplies, and getting sustenance for all those overworked “parents.”  I believe I worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day, for about 12 weeks straight. I was tempted to put a cot in my office, which was a table and chair in a supply room. A cot wouldn’t fit! No glamour, early on. To think I’d given up my own office with a conference table in it—and a WINDOW! At the time, none of us at startup thought for a second about working conditions. We were proud and motivated to contribute to a new approach to defend our passengers, our airlines, and our nation’s well-being against terrorists.  

Aside from the immense congressional pressures and dozens of unreasonable deadlines, the employees were there because they were patriots, wanting to serve their country in a perilous fight against terrorism. Many sacrifices were made by all, and all understood those necessary sacrifices and made them willingly, no questions asked.

If I had been able to address Congress about the federalization of aviation security, I—and many others—would have recommended issuing new contracts and new statements of work with security companies nationwide who were already in place. The TSA would take on a strict oversight and training role in such contracts. Meanwhile, we had armed military presence in many airports, as was appropriate in a national crisis.  

Infant to Toddler: Growing pains

TSA, staffed with patriots, including private sector executives and many dedicated, smart, and hard-working Coast Guard members, moved forward to meet those deadlines. Criticism—from media, public and Congress—was rampant when TSA chose some high-end hotels and resorts to start interviewing tens-of thousands of applicants for security screener positions across the nation. With deadlines looming in days and weeks, those expensive locations were the only types that could handle the technology needed to accept and process those 10,000-plus applications and conduct hundreds of interviews. And those big numbers were at each location in major cities. Dedicated computers in banks of dozens and internet providers were set up in ballrooms of these luxury hotels and had to be ready to roll and stay rolling 24/7 in major metropolitan areas. A computer or two at your local Days Inn sure couldn’t cut it, technologically or logistically. You want it fast? It’s going to cost more.

As the clock ticked and against all odds, I saw amazing progress.

Security—A Layered Approach

The approach to any good security is not simplistic. TSA’s experts developed a multi-layered protection and deterrent, with much thought put into more than just screening passengers. Many of those layers were relatively invisible to the traveling public. TSA’s initial executives felt that some layers should be under the radar to avoid attention by anyone wanting to do harm. I saw training programs developed, field-tested and implemented. One by one, airports saw change in physical configuration to accommodate the new security processes, screeners and equipment. TSA considered itself a resident guest in each airport, offering as much respect for each airport authority as possible without compromising security. As with any startup, initially, security lines moved slower than anyone preferred. Screeners were staffing the checkpoints, trying to do a new and highly scrutinized job with excellence and professionalism, while coping with an agitated flying public and very concerned airlines. None of this process was easy, on either side of the security position. The whole world was watching. September 11th had changed everything for everyone.

TSA as an agency did what was nearly impossible in standing up the organization that Congress demanded by law. Its leaders dealt with the gray area between security and politics every single day, trying to keep both ends satisfied.

And Today’s TSA?

I’m not sure how to close this topic before I bore you to tears, so I’ll just say that Congress, in all its grandstanding, made things more difficult for everyone, in my opinion. Although I’m not as confident in the maturity of our aviation security as I’d like to be, I know that a layered approach to security is better than relying on one single aspect. Security in depth was the mission 17 years ago, and I pray it still is. I am not as confident in the motivation of some of the TSA employees in comparison to those early-day patriots, the TSA “parents,” who overcame so many odds.

With my husband having served in the military for 20 years, I have always considered my federal employment in a time of crisis as an exceptional opportunity to serve my country. After tolerating federal service for only six years, I saw way too much abuse of federal employment. I believe our federal workforce could be more efficient and effective if it was cut in half—but that’s a subject for another blog.

Stay vigilant. And thanks for reading!

Dee Armstrong

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