By 2007, when Stephanie and I met with Brill and Olson, RT was still moving along, but remained essentially a “cut to the front of the line” benefit without any value added in the background check or changes to the security process at the gate. I had given Stephanie responsibility for RT, but her main priority was fixing issues related Secure Flight, the TSA’s own program, which required passengers to register basic personal information before flying. The info was then matched against the no-fly list, a task previously handled by the airlines.
Even after the meeting at Ted Olson’s office, RT remained on Stephanie’s back burner until she found herself spending more and more time dealing with Steve Brill, who was spending a ton of money to promote Registered Traveler. Brill, Stephanie soon learned, had reached people higher up the food chain throughout the federal government. His connections sometimes made her work difficult, and the constant pressure from senior staff at the DHS, Capitol Hill, and elsewhere made her life miserable. She took comfort in the fact that if the political heat forced her to leave TSA, she could always go back to the private sector and draw a much larger paycheck.
The program’s goal was to get RTs through the checkpoint as easily as possible. The proposal even included a proprietary product, called a ClearCard, that would replace a government-issued ID. But RT ultimately offered zero additional security value. The “background checks” were little more than a marketing point. Though Brill and the program’s other sponsors wouldn’t have known it, virtually all of the serious al-Qaeda operatives involved in major aviation plots would have easily cleared RT-type screening. I wanted the checkpoints to be easier and faster too, but I couldn’t possibly allow RT cardholders to keep their shoes on when I knew that al-Qaeda was training operatives with clean backgrounds and shoe bombs. I also wasn’t crazy about the idea of giving our imprimatur—and therefore, the government’s stamp of approval and public money—for a private-industry “security” venture.
Because Brill was tireless in his lobbying, PR, and media efforts, I suggested ideas to develop the product, like training behavior-detection officers or doing off-airport security screening in midtown Manhattan. He was earnest but uninterested in getting involved in the security process—he saw that as our job. Brill just wanted to get RTs through checkpoints quickly, and preferably wearing their shoes and jackets, with their laptops in their cases. After an excruciating and lengthy process, and tantalizingly close to the holy grail for frequent fliers, Brill finally uncovered a new technology that could have changed the whole picture: a combined biometric card reader and ShoeScanner.
The ShoeScanner was a technology pioneered by GE that would, in theory, allow travelers to walk through a small, floor-based, explosives detection system with their shoes on. It was a great idea. Everybody hated taking their shoes off, and offering this service to travelers would be a huge boon to the ClearCard program. It also encouraged me to get behind RT. But after we had publicly heralded a trial of the device at Orlando International, George Zarur found something in the technology that, in an ironic twist, our much-maligned overly bureaucratic process had missed during the ShoeScanner’s expedited review. For the next month, George tested what the device did, and it was not enough to stay in airports. Instead of partnering with private industry to improve and speed up security, we ended up with egg on our face. But pulling the units was our only choice.
The battle finally culminated in Congress, a body that had long been a booster of the RT program. Secretary Chertoff was good enough to accompany me to the closed-door congressional hearing. “Explain to me,” Chertoff said, “why a member of the American public should send his information to the government, ask us to issue an ID, and then turn around and pay $100 to an outside businessman to go to the head of our line?” Chertoff hammered home the security points with his relentless logic. We never got the improved, expedited security that could have improved our credibility and in the end, the whole saga was just a distraction from what we knew to be active plotting against aviation. But at least the full-court press on Registered Traveler was over.