Bad Guys Aren’t Stupid – They’ll Exploit TSA Cuts

Photo: iStock.com/martince2

The Trump administration is reportedly eyeing cuts to the Transportation Security Administration and other Department of Homeland Security agencies in an attempt to pay for President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. A draft plan by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would slash TSA’s funding about 11 percent to $4.5 billion, according to The Washington Post.

A recent Reuters report said DHS has estimated the Trump’s wall — a series of fences and walls — will cost up to $21.6 billion. The OMB budget proposal would hike the overall DHS budget 6.4 percent to $43.8 billion, with Trump’s wall receiving $2.9 billion, $1.9 billion going to “immigration detention beds” and Immigration and Customs Enforcement expenses, and $285 million designated to hire more Border Patrol agents and ICE staffers as TSA, the Coast Guard, and FEMA face significant cuts, the Post reports.

The Cipher Brief’s Mackenzie Weinger spoke with former TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski to discuss how the potential budget cuts at the Agency would impact counterterrorism efforts, and what it could mean for national security.

The Cipher Brief: According to reports, the proposal would cut TSA’s budget about 11 percent. What could an 11 percent budget cut to TSA mean for national security?

John Halinski: From what I’ve seen of the DHS, I don’t want to say they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul — but they are, really. A lot of the cuts are coming to pay for immigration control, which I understand, and there’s a threat vector that bad guys use across the border. The problem is the aviation sector. It’s a very cyclic sector when it comes to threat. After 9/11, what happened was you had a huge impact to the aviation security world, the U.S. created TSA, they put into place the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, and then things calmed down for a bit, for about three or four years.

The problem is the bad guys are fixated on the aviation sector because they know, one, it can instill terror — because people, naturally, have a fear of falling out of the sky — but two, you also have lots of people in locations jammed together with less than what you would call fortress-type security. The airports certainly aren’t a fortress, they’re commercial venues, as are the airlines. So what you saw was they tightened up the ability for the threat to get on the airplane with knives and guns and things like that. The bad guys in 2006 to 2010 shifted, and their whole thought process was, “Ok, we can’t get on with guns and knives, but what we can get on with is explosives.” Whether that’s a nonmetallic explosive in an underwear bomb or an explosive in a printer, they shifted. And what happened is you suddenly saw a huge increase in the budget for the aviation sector — TSA was given a billion dollars to spend on the body scanner and to tighten up rules for the cargo and things like that.

So you mitigate the first threat, you mitigate the second threat, but unfortunately, the threat is very industrious. They’re not stupid. They change their tactics based on the vulnerability of what they perceive. The vulnerabilities now, after another three- or four- or five-year cycle, are the use of the insider threat and then attacks against the airport itself. They’ve changed again.

Here’s my fear: If you don’t keep a steady medium, if you slash budgets with the idea we can do it better or we can do it smarter, and you don’t take into account the shifting threat, then you’re going to run into problems. What will happen is there will be an event, and they’ll turn around and they’ll beef up the budget.

TCB: What do you make of the reports of the administration’s approach seeming to weigh major cuts to TSA in order to try to fund Trump’s border wall?

JH: I look at what they’re doing with CBP and ICE — and they have a really tough job — and where in the past they’ve instilled a lot of money in the aviation sector, they’re instilling it now in CBP and ICE. Here’s the problem with that: You’re beefing up one area of DHS and reducing it in another, and the bad guys aren’t stupid. They look where the holes are, they look where the vulnerabilities are, and they attack those. The better approach is a more measured approach without drastic cuts in any of the DHS agencies. All it’s going to take is one major incident with FEMA, a Hurricane Sandy or something like that, or a plane blowing out of the sky.

TCB: According to the reported proposed cuts, a number of programs are up for potential elimination — the “armed pilot” program to prep pilots for an attempted takeover of their plane, Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams that deploy at transportation hubs, the Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) program and grants for local law enforcement to patrol in and around airports. How would you assess these possible cuts?

JH: They’re talking about cutting manpower, which is the easiest thing to do. The air marshal program, the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program, and the behavior detection officers. I’m a big fan of behavior detection. There are a large number of critics of TSA, and they always bring up the question, particularly with the BDO program, “How many terrorists have you caught?” And you can’t demonstrate the metrics.

My answer to this is always, and I’ve said this on the Hill, is the job of TSA is not to capture terrorists. Their job is to ensure the security of the transportation system, which means mom and pop and the kids get on the plane at DCA and fly to Disney and come back, it’s not blown up out of the sky, and nobody’s injured. It’s a very hard metric to quantify and qualify the behavior detection program, the VIPR program, and a number of these things. The analogy I always use is the spider and the fly — a spider that spins a single strand is never going to catch the fly. The spider that has a very strong web, has multiple layers of security that are interactive and complement each other, they have more strength and they’re going to get what they want — the fly. In the case of TSA, multiple layers of security is not about catching the terrorist. It’s mitigating the threat to ensure that the security of the system is protected.

If you look at those programs, they’re easy to cut because they’re high-dollar programs and what they really involve are people. So what they’re talking about is cutting a ton of people from the system.

Once you start cutting that, you have basically, except for the cockpit door, reduced that last element of protection for people in the air. They’re talking about cutting the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program — TSA several years ago started a program where the air marshals trained a large number of pilots, who volunteer for the program, how to shoot, and basically those pilots on those flights carry a weapon in the cockpit, and that’s a last measure. If you cut the air marshals and then you’re cutting the program where pilots have the training and authority, there is no last ditch effort at the airplane except for a hardened cockpit door. I’m not sure they’re looking at it from a threat perspective. It’s plain numbers and budget.

The other program they’re talking about cutting that I’ve seen is the VIPR program. I personally find it to be a very good program for a number of reasons, particularly to mitigate the insider threat. The VIPR program is based on threat, and there’s no pattern to it.  The VIPRs are made up of, usually, local PD, federal air marshals, behavior detection officers, and sometimes bomb dogs. You see them sometimes at the metro stations, you see them at the airports walking around. When you’re talking about security, one of the most effective security measures you can do is visible deterrence. And visible deterrence that’s unpredictable mitigates the insider threat.

The targets that are out there now — when you look at Brussels, what scared me is they went in and they hit the metro, they hit the metro in Paris before, and in other places. If they don’t believe there is any kind of security at all in these areas, then you are increasing the threat vector against those targets. And to cut the VIPR program, “Okay, I’m going to cut all these guys out because they really don’t show their worth.” Their worth is they’re a deterrence. Deterrence is just as effective in the security world as screening or vetting or other measures.

The last program is very controversial. Some people have always found the behavior detection program offensive because they claim it’s profiling. It has cost a billion dollars, they’re in every airport. But it gives them the ability, using a scorecard, to look at factors to determine the risk for extra screening. That’s it. We’re talking about facial tics or somebody who is sweating profusely, or somebody who they go and ask a question to and who is not looking directly in the person’s eyes or their eyes are shifting. There are a number of behavioral traits that are categorized, and these individuals are trained, and there is a scorecard that’s used. But what is used in Miami may be a little bit different than what’s used in Alaska because of the anomalies of the culture. People don’t like it because it’s profiling, which they say is a dirty word, but in the security world, you get a sense of when something is not right or someone is doing something suspicious. And they work with CBP and ICE all the time and catch people carrying money and drugs, which isn’t in their charter. All of these things are very metrically difficult to quantify for appropriators.

This is my concern from a budgetary standpoint — if you focus on individual programs and decimate those individual programs and don’t look at the total security layered system, then what you’re doing is key layers in key areas will be gone from that system. That will reduce the overall capability of the system, number one. Number two, the bad guys are very smart. The threats to the aviation sector now are much, much greater than they’ve ever been because of the diversity of the vectors of threat against aviation, ranging from hijacking to attacking the airport to the insider threat. And you have the more technical ones that are just evolving now, drones around airports, cyberattacks against the aviation system, the use of lasers against pilots during landing and takeoff.

The threat vectors have increased, they’ve become much more diverse and innovative. I’m not saying that TSA couldn’t have its budget reduced, I’m a realist, but when you make the cuts, they should be based on threats, most importantly.

TCB: What would make you feel more confident that the budget was decided in the context of these threats, and are there any other recommendations you could give regarding TSA more broadly?

JH: One of the concerns I have with TSA is they’re a regulator, and they seem to be much more responsive to the people they regulate than the regulations themselves. They’re more worried about, say, I have an exceptionally long line at this airport today so I’m going to stop this program, or I’m going to institute a program that speeds up the trains going through the system, and holding off on taking new technology that reduces the human factor. What I would like to see from a budget standpoint is that when they’ve considered these cuts, they were based on thorough analysis of the threat vectors against the aviation system.

I’m really heartened to see [ret.] Gen. John Kelly at DHS — having been at SOUTHCOM, he knows how to work with law enforcement, the military and civilians. I’m really happy to see him in that position. But it’s very important if they’re going to cut that budget at TSA that they name an Administrator. It’s important to have a political appointee in charge of the agency because that political appointee is tied into the administration.

When you just have career, government people in an agency with no direct ties to the administration, that’s a formula for trouble. You need to know what the President is thinking, what his NSC staff are thinking, and in these big components like CBP, ICE, TSA, if you’re not a political appointee, you know that you’re not going to be able to push anything with the group on the Hill or in the White House because you’re always going to be considered an outsider. The sooner they get an Administrator at TSA, the better it will be for the system. And it’s not that the people who are there now are not capable, it’s that they need that political top cover and the protection to be very effective. The best service they could do right now, particularly if they’re talking about slashing budgets, is to put someone in that spot that has access to the White House and understands the desires and intentions of the White House.

The problem is always trying to find somebody who will take TSA. TSA is that agency that people love to hate. Besides the IRS, TSA is the most vilified agency in the U.S. government. It’s that agency that reaches out and touches two million U.S. citizens a day. I used to say if I didn’t have five YouTube moments by four o’clock, it was a lucky day. Just the way it is.

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.