The Evolution of the TSA

A computer screen is not the ideal vehicle for reading long essays or documents. (A carefully laid-out print magazine is one ideal vehicle. Let's say it together... subscribe!) Thus the value of various services and apps like Longform, using Instapaper, which together can convert long on-line documents to a format that is easy to read on a Kindle or other e-reader, an iPad or other tablet, on paper after being printed out, or even (nicely) on a computer screen  via Readability.

But I'm not really talking about tech. I'm hoping you will use one of those means to read the long Atlantic interview posted today with John Pistole, the new head of the TSA. At least resolve to read it before your next despair-inducing trip to an airport, to assess what you see in the screening line in light of what Pistole says are TSA's long-term goals.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and I conducted the interview. We've been long-time critics of the TSA's strategy and tactics, and we wanted to hear "the other side" from the person in charge. Jeff Goldberg gives a brief intro to the interview here, and I do here.

I think Pistole's comments as a whole are illuminating for one main reason: they show that he has at least thought about the major lines of criticism of what the TSA is and does. That sounds like nothing, but it's significant in itself, since over the years so much of the "explanation" emanating from the national-security state has boiled down to "we can't tell you" or "because we say so."  (Is that unfair? Think of the "Oh, this is crucial to our safety" rationalizations given for the idiotic "Threat Level is Orange" announcements, until all of a sudden color-coded threat alerts were dropped last month. Or the insistence that air safety would be imperiled unless uniformed pilots went through exactly the same security procedures as everyone else -- until last month that rule changed too.) At no point in our discussion did Pistole seem defensive or insistent on a straight party line -- think of the typical White House briefer fending off journalists if you want an idea of how he did not seem -- and he gave evidence of having actually thought about most of the issues we raised.

The main evidence was recognizing that all of these are difficult problems. How do you raise in public the certainty that some day another terrorist attack will succeed? How do you properly weight all the different factors the TSA must consider? The need to retain an at least somewhat-efficient air travel system; the disagreements within the American public on the proper balance between security and privacy; the built-in hypocrisy of political discussion of the issue (Congressmen complain about going through screening, yet they vote for laws saying that all Congressmen must be screened). And many more. Recognizing that these issues involve a balance, and that not everyone will agree on the right balance -- this may sound like common sense, but it's not normal to hear it in the homeland-security biz.

That's more than enough for now. Just one other note of context. Although both Jeff Goldberg and I have written extensively about specific TSA-checkpoint horror stories, we thought there was no point in going in with a list and saying, What about this nightmare in Phoenix? What about that one in San Diego? There's an official line on those episodes, often delivered via the TSA's "Blogger Bob," and it didn't seem worth going through that exercise.

Instead I wanted to know how Pistole thought about the trade-offs and contradictions of his job, including some I had previously laid out here. Jeff Goldberg had his parallel line of questions, for instance on whether the TSA could ever shift from inspecting things -- the pen-knife in your briefcase, the toothpaste tube -- to assessing people, and judging which of each day's two million U.S. travelers really needs a closer look. Significantly, Pistole makes clear at the end that the TSA must evolve that way. You may not like all of Pistole's answers; in a day or so, I'll list some of the areas where I most disagree with his analysis. And you will certainly see that this was nothing like a carefully choreographed line of questioning. But having a senior official in the homeland-security realm at least begin to offer a rationale, and admit the impossibility of solving hard problems -- I have learned that is something not to take for granted. So, on the proper reading devices, I think this is worth your time.