A Billion Details and No Precedent—An Inside Look at the TSA's Scrambling Start

Building the TSA from scratch in the months following 9/11 seemed an insurmountable task, unrivaled in both scope and size. In Permanent Emergency, former TSA administrator Kip Hawley vividly reconstructs the breakneck pace at which this gargantuan security agency came about and how it came to be an institutional clusterf*ck.

I arrived in Washington in mid-October 2001 and made my way to the DOT, which then sat in a ten-story white building that took up a whole block just south of the Smithsonian buildings up on the National Mall. (Not inappropriately, it was called the Nassif Building, which rhymes with massive.) Over the years, the DOT has grown to envelop a mishmash of different agencies with regulatory power over highways, waterways, pipelines, railroads, Hazmat transport, and the merchant marine, as well as the mysterious and magical task of determining when daylight savings starts. But it was DOT's authority over the Federal Aviation Administration and the process of remaking airport security that was now keeping the leadership there for twelve to fourteen hours every day.

I went up to the tenth floor and waited in the reception area for Michael [Jackson - Deputy Secretary of the DOT at the time], who, at six feet tall had a few inches on me, though his hair was gray by the time he was thirty. As he led me into his executive office, steeped in that signature Washington air of solemn formality and replete with large windows overlooking Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Michael somehow managed to look both exhausted and energized.

Michael launched into the problems he'd faced and pressures the department had been under. One story in particular painted a striking picture of post-9/11 life on the tenth floor of the DOT. A few days after the attacks, Michael had watched President George W. Bush go on television and tell the American public that he was switching the airport system back on.

"It was a good speech. We helped him write it," said Michael as he flopped down into his chair. Of course, restarting flights was no easy matter. Planes from Europe had been forced to land over Canada's northeast coast, cramming the small airports. Jets sat checkerboarded nose to tail on the runways. On the day flying resumed, hundreds of planes flew empty but for their flight crews and pilots to get back in place for their normal schedule.

During his speech, the president also promised that his cabinet members would take to the air the next day as a show of confidence. As soon as the president had uttered the words, Michael thought about his next problem: If you wanted to take out the government, that would be a pretty good place to start. He dialed the ex-general in charge of the Federal Air Marshals, or FAMs, the specialized group of law enforcement officers who are authorized to carry guns on aircraft, and told him to make sure there was a team on every flight with a cabinet member.

Michael leaned forward. "But this general took umbrage that some political hack was telling him what to do, and I get a text from Jane Garvey telling me that the general has decamped." Garvey was the head of the Federal Aviation Administration and the general's direct superior. "So," continued Michael, "I said to Jane, ‘Fine, good. If he doesn't realize that we are in a shooting war and we're the target, fire him.'" Michael grimaced. "The general tried to apologize, but it was too late, he was gone."

I studied Michael's face while he recounted the story. His mustache and hair hadn't gotten any grayer, but my friend, already thin, seemed to have lost some weight and gained enormous black circles under his eyes.

Next he walked me through his office's back door to see Secretary Mineta. If Michael looked both exhausted yet energized, Norm Mineta looked vigorous. He was seventy years old, looked fifty, and acted forty.

We sat on a couch while Norm diagrammed the task of rebuilding security on a yellow legal pad with a green felt-tipped pen. He talked a mile a minute, firing off innumerable deadlines and tasks that had to be lined up and prioritized. Marshaling the resources would be an endless search. The government had never attempted such intense aviation security. There was no existing playbook in the government and no ready market in the private sector to meet America's radically expanded security needs.

Norm flipped the page and drew a horizontal line across the top, jabbing at points along it and leaving a trail of dots leading up to a vertical slash at the end. As he was running out of room on the right side of the page, Norm circled the vertical line and circled it again. Then he underscored it, and for good measure thickened it with a few intense strokes. "We have to. We have to meet the deadlines. We have to meet the deadlines." He paused. "Do you think you can help us do that?"

Suddenly, I realized what I was actually there for. These guys wanted me to construct and drive the new security process, not manage someone's inbox.

Michael led me over to his windowless hideaway office complete with a desk and a small washroom about fifty feet away-a room that was jokingly referred to as "Michael's Bathroom." Putting me to work next door to him was meant to show my job's importance, but Michael did have to walk through my new office to get to his executive washroom. "Grab a seat!" he said with a smile, gesturing to the desk, which was covered with two-foot-tall stacks of multicolored folders. A large gray safe sat adjacent to the desk, its fortified drawers pulled out and crammed with more folders. Helpfully stuck in the drawer's front handle was a large sign marked "Open." Welcome back to government, I thought. The stay ended up being seven months, six of them as a guest of the Jackson household, living in the guest bedroom off their family den.

***

On November 19, Michael, Norm, and the rest of the DOT leadership went out to Reagan National for a media event in which the president signed Aviation and Transportation Security Act into effect. The ATSA gave shape, mandates, and some legal authority to the Transportation Security Administration, the new entity I was suddenly tasked with building. Most germane to me were the thirty-six dates engraved in the statute. ATSA dictated that each security mandate, from the government taking over airport security screening to massive technology purchases be knocked off over the next year, over a rolling series of three dozen deadlines. The first one was sixty days away.

A few weeks earlier, Secretary Mineta, his chief of staff, John Flaherty, Michael, and I had talked about those deadlines. If we were going to do anything other than just implement ATSA's particulars-good, bad, and ugly-there was no possibility of making the big deadlines later in the year. For instance, a credible case could be made that rushing to hire 50,000 new employees into an agency that didn't previously exist might result in excessive cost and uncertain hiring quality. Also, since the physical act of buying and installing brand new screening equipment across the country would use up virtually all of the time allotted, there was precious little time to consider the full range of technology options. Meeting the ATSA deadlines would require skipping over any independent review of the staff recommendations for more than a billion dollars of spending. If the DOT was going to push back on the fine print contained in ATSA, it would have do so now and take the public flak for not being able to achieve the urgently needed security improvements. "The choice is to debate the best way to move forward or simply implement, one or the other," I said. Secretary Mineta did not hesitate, fiddle, or flinch when he told me, "You are going to make every one of those deadlines."

Now, sitting alone at my desk at the same time my bosses conducted the ceremonial creation of the TSA across the Potomac, I puzzled over how to actually jump-start the organization. A rollout of this size had never been attempted before, anywhere. Securing the aviation system alone meant going into 450 airports across the country to guard the lives of two million passengers a day. There were a billion details and no precedent. The walls started to close in. I have one hour, I thought, staring at a blank sheet of paper, before they come back and ask me, "Well, where do we start?" I started sketching process maps.

From Permanent Emergency by Kip Hawley and Nathan Means. Copyright © 2012 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd. - Image: the AP


A Billion Details and No Precedent—An Inside Look at the TSA's Scrambling StartPermanent Emergency is available from Amazon