The following is an excerpt from Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security, by Kip Hawley and Nathan Means(Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
One day in 2007 Stephanie Rowe, who was in charge of the identity- based programs at TSA, including Registered Traveler, accompanied me to a meeting with Ted Olson, one of the most respected and powerful lawyers in the country. Stephanie, who normally poured her considerable energies into solving TSA’s mission challenges rather than political issues, had no idea who he was at the time, but one glance at the marble and dark wood accents in Olson’s downtown Washington office told her that she was definitely in one of the preeminent halls of DC power.
We sat down opposite Olson and his client, Steve Brill, the founder of the CourtTV cable channel and American Lawyer magazine. The subject of our meeting was Registered Traveler, a proposed public-private partnership that would allow frequent flyers to submit a background check and pay $100 to move more quickly through airport checkpoints. Brill was a major investor in the program, and while I had green-lighted the program in 2005, it had floundered as companies offering the service had done little other than take the money and let “members” cut to the front of security lines.
Before long, Olson became angry with me, believing I was stonewalling innovation and hiding behind the mantle of “security.” I’m used to taking some heat, and I knew that Steve had him torqued up in anticipation of what I would say, so out of respect for Olson, I took one for the team and listened unperturbed to Ted’s impassioned lambasting.
Stephanie, on the other hand, was outraged. I could feel the steam coming out of her ears as she fidgeted and rattled in the chair next to me. When she got home that night she went on a tirade to her husband, David, about the conversation. After she was done, David said, “You really don’t know who he is, do you?” He gently explained that she had just been in a meeting with the former US Solicitor General, the legal counsel to President Bush’s 2000 campaign, and, on a personal level, a man who had tragically lost his own wife on the American Airlines flight flown into the Pentagon on 9/11. Olson was also a close friend of Secretary Chertoff though he never used that relationship to put further pressure on us.
The idea that the TSA should segment passengers into higher- and lower-risk populations was not a bad concept—indeed, it was part of our original mandate. With 2 million people a day, the TSA could provide better security and quicker lines for everyone if a number of preapproved people went through an expedited security screening.
But it wasn’t until 2003, at the urging of then–secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, that the TSA opened a Registered Traveler program office. Because the TSA leadership was too busy fighting fires, the agency decided to let the private sector figure out the details of Registered Traveler before coming back for approval. By the time I arrived in 2005, RT, as it was known, was concluding a successful technology pilot in DC, Minneapolis, and Orlando. A small population of frequent flyers had been issued biometric RT cards and, after verifying their identity at special card readers, were able to proceed to the front of the security line. Expectations were high. The promise of bypassing long queues and demeaning security treatment fired the imagination of the American frequent flyer.
In October 2005, after a few months on the job, I was invited to a congressional hearing on RT that offered a rare chance for the TSA to score a clear public-relations win and maybe gain a few fans, at least among frequent flyers. Unfortunately, there was a security issue. The so-called vetting for RT members was only an immigration status and terrorist screening database check. Meaning that if you weren’t an illegal alien or already on the FBI’s radar as a terror suspect, you were good to go. Under these criteria, the July 2005 London Underground bombers would all have been eligible for RT cards. So at the hearing I announced that the private sector had to work out a business model to both fund RT and add security value while not inconveniencing the general public and then come back to us for a security evaluation. Then I went back to work on other, more pressing issues.