TSA Nominee Harding Endorses Intelligence-Driven Security

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Robert Harding would reshape training for TSOs so that they would engage the public, make better use of intelligence

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding vowed to continue to make the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) more intelligence-driven and to revamp training for its screeners to improve their abilities to collect and act on intelligence in the first of his two confirmation hearings Tuesday.

If confirmed as the TSA chief, Harding said he would continue to drive the agency's processes by intelligence, putting an emphasis on information rather than over-relying on physical screening.

"In a choice between pure risk avoidance and being informed by intelligence, I would prefer to be informed by intelligence," Harding told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

In so doing, the TSA would work closely with the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as agencies within the US Intelligence Community, Harding said.

Harding also emphasized the need to place air passenger screening in the hands of the government and not the airlines--a transition planned under the Secure Flight program.

As TSA chief, Harding would sit down with US intelligence agencies and implement improvements in the processes for drawing up selectee and no-fly lists from the Terrorist Screening Database. The criteria for producing such watchlists have come under scrutiny since the Christmas Day bombing attempt of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

Airport screeners

But Harding also would work with the 48,000 transportation security officers (TSOs) within the agency to improve training on detecting and acting on threats.

Harding endorsed increasing training for behavioral detection. TSA currently has about 2,000 behavior detection officers working across US airports to spot suspicious or unusual behavior among air passengers and to flag them for secondary screening if necessary.

Currently, TSOs take a one-week training course on engaging the public, which extends layered security measures, Harding said. But they could do more.

"Even though there is a difference in scale, some of the things that we see from our Israeli partners and friends is the use of engagement," Harding stated.

"We should move even closer to an Israeli model where there is even more engagement with passengers. I think that increases the layers and pushes the layers out. I think that's a very important aspect of providing security--engaging the public," Harding added.

That would involve training, more training and drills, the nominee said.

"If confirmed, I would look forward to working with my 48,000 TSOs in ensuring their training goes even further than where we are presently in engage, move toward the Israeli model of training and drilling, and I think you would see change very fast," he remarked.

At the same time, Harding promised to work with TSOs to improve morale among the TSA workforce. He did not, however, commit to granting them collective bargaining rights.

Harding has studied the issue of collective bargaining and believes TSOs and DHS management agree that security concerns must come first.

"All parties agree on the need for flexiblity and agility. All parties agree on the necessity for the administrator to have the ability to move screeners at a moment's notice in response or prior to a terrorist incident. Everyone seems to agree we need to strengthen security," Harding stated.

"If confirmed, I would love to have the opportunity to broaden the experience that I've already in looking into this by talking to a very broad cross-section of the transportation security officers, other members of TSA, as well as members in DHS," he said.

He would then provide the best advice he could to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who ultimately has the authority to decide on whether to grant collective bargaining rights to screeners.

The issue of collective bargaining ultimately derailed Erroll Southers, the Obama administration's first nominee to head TSA. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) would not relent on a hold he placed on the nomination due to Southers' desire to study the issue within TSA.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), ranking member of the committee, suggested the issue could haunt Harding as well.

"I understand your inability to make a clear answer," she lamented.

Modes of transportation

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the committee, expressed concerns that TSA has not given enough attention to other modes of transportation outside of commercial air. Rockefeller added that a lack of security measures in general aviation also represented a potentially unacceptable gap in homeland security.

Hutchison noted that 68 percent of the TSA budget in fiscal 2011 would go toward aviation security while only 2 percent would go toward surface transportation security, warning that this imbalance could foster terrorist attacks on buses and trains.

Harding indicated that he would use intelligence to determine how terrorists would strike at the US transportation systems and defend them appropriately.

"We would apply both the resources and budget appropriately across all of TSA based on what we see as the threat," Harding said.

He complimented the TSA's Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, calling them an effort worth expanding.

As for general aviation, Harding said he would take a hard look at general aviation security as TSA administrator. He would make it a high priority to "bring them into the fold," thereby bringing security initiatives like the Large Aircraft Security Program to general aviation airfields.

Harding faces a second confirmation hearing on his nomination Wednesday in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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