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Robert Goodwin

Robert Goodwin

Robert J. Goodwin is CEO and co-founder of Executives Without Borders; former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force and appointee at USAID, the State Department and the White House.

A flawed process

Question: It's now obvious that Homeland Security officials misjudged the public reaction to new airport security measures. What should leaders do when confronted with widespread backlash against a decision they still believe to be sound and in which they have invested considerable money and reputation? Should the TSA try to weather the storm or plot a strategic retreat?

It doesn't matter if you have served in the military, are young or old, are a former law enforcement officer, or have a top-level security clearance. When standing in the security line, everyone is treated the same--like a potential terrorist--and that, inherently, is the problem. The system, like many government programs, is built on a baseline of "fairness." This approach removes common sense decision-making from the process and, as a result, Grandma's walker and Junior's leg braces are weapons until proven otherwise. Not to mention the hip replacement and pacemaker crowd that sets off the metal detectors.

There is no doubt that the TSA's security measures are in response to legitimate and actual threats, but the process and methodology for whom they select for screening is flawed. Government policy tends to err on the side of political correctness instead of using behavioral analysis and other predictive data that highlight higher-risk individuals. This can be done similarly to how risk is assessed for car and health insurance, and without the profiling of race and religion we are protected from in our Constitution. TSA can also take pages from the video-game industry and find a way to translate the virtual strip search into a screen view that makes people feel less exposed.

Due to a recent failed terrorist attempt, a predictable government overreaction has created a level of backlash and public outcry against measures that at least half of us find too intrusive. Simply put, the TSA has crossed into territory where Americans fiercely guard their personal freedoms--and it's paying a heavy reputational price for doing so. And with decreasing federal budgets, even the TSA needs to make sure it is directing its resources to address the highest threats, where we will also get the most return from our taxpayer dollars.

Sometimes, good leaders make bad decisions--and the best among them understand that doubling down on a bad bet isn't the way to go about saving face. Admitting mistakes and pledging to both learn from and correct them shows a level of responsiveness and concern that people appreciate. We all have the same goal--security without unduly limiting our personal freedoms--and TSA needs to do a better job of engaging the public they are sworn to protect.

By Robert Goodwin

 |  November 24, 2010; 1:50 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Crisis leadership , Failures Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Unfortunately, it is important to initially assume everyone is a terrorist. You hear people saying "why do they need to search granny--they should be going after the young males from the Middle East." Except the Israelis discovered suicide bombers who appeared to be orthodox jews, one who appeared to be an Israeli soldier. We discovered one suicide bomber in Iraq who had Downs Syndrome. Additionally, not all suicide bombers realize that they're suicide bombers. During the Intifadah, the Israelis discovered some individuals were carrying items that were command detonated (usually by a cellphone) and some of the individuals weren't aware they were intended to be a bomber--they were just delivering a backpack or package to someone. For instance, Pan Am 103 was brought down over Lockerbie, Scotland by a bomb in a cassette player. The cassette player belonged to a US woman (college student) who was a native born US citizen, not from the middle east and not muslim. It's interesting you'd mention Junior's leg braces or Granny's walker--Steven Hatfill, when doing security seminars, used to say that the best way to smuggle weapons and explosives past airport security was to use a wheelchair.

It's a fallacy to argue that our airport security treats everyone the same--it does not--and it's deceptive to insist that it is. If you have a one-way ticket or no baggage you'll usually get additional screening. If your carryon luggage screen shows up with some anomalies then you get additional screening. TSA's entire strategy is based on redundancy (of which the security line is only one small part). Agents scan for particular behavioral cues or markers. Everyone is not treated the same. What is true to say about screening is that no-one individual is exempt--everyone gets screened it's just that some people get additional screening.

The behavioral markers you talk about with McVeigh and Hasan--we do some of that now. But the problem with behavioral markers is: you first half to scan everyone to see if someone is exhibiting behavior or actions that set off potential alarms. Thus, everyone initially has to be treated as a suspect. It's a hassle. But as soon as you tell large chunks of the population "you don't have to go through a back-scatter scanner and no pat down for you" then you effectively tell the bad guys "look and behave like this and you won't get scanned".

Posted by: JoeW1 | November 30, 2010 12:53 PM
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The TSA has sure given us some great examples of how not to do things. You are right, it does need to improve its processes. It would help, too, if it admitted some of its mistakes. This article (http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-guarantees/customer-recovery-first-system-recovery-second) points out the need to focus on client recovery first and system recovery second. The TSA could learn a thing or two!

Posted by: Julie-Ann1 | November 29, 2010 9:30 PM
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To Glennet1:

Thank you for your comment. On your point about Major Hasan and Tim McVeigh it is the type of behavioral data and analysis I referenced that would have flagged them as risks.

The NY Times talked about some early warning about Major Hasan (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/09/us/09reconstruct.html) and McVeigh's purchase of huge amounts of ammonium nitrate would have flagged him as a risk despite his military service.

Posted by: RJGoodwin | November 25, 2010 11:40 PM
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Posted by: zhengee55 | November 24, 2010 9:36 PM
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The example of "served in the military" reminds me that Major Malik Nadal Hasan was a serving officer and Timoth McVeigh was a white Christian army veteran. As it happens their acts didn't involve aircraft, but they could have.

Of course special provision should be made for people with disabilities and young children, and it is shameful that the TSA hasn't already done so. Not to exempt them but to do it in a way that avoids embarrassment and discomfort.

Posted by: glennet1 | November 24, 2010 8:55 PM
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It doesn't matter if you have served in the military, are young or old, are a former law enforcement officer, or have a top-level security clearance. When standing in the security line, everyone is treated the same--like a potential terrorist--and that, inherently, is the problem.
Big honking thumbs-up for getting at the ultimate crux of the issue. As I keep hammering on when I comment on articles and columns like this, treating us all like potential criminals is one of the fourteen tenets of fascism (actually, two, #7 and #12):


Posted by: bucinka8 | November 24, 2010 8:11 PM
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We are willing to start wars, kill, destroy thousands of lives, discriminate against anyone that basically is not suburban white. But a full body scan? That is too intrusive? Something is a little wrong with that picture.
Let's be honest, the TSA workers should be paid more for having to look at/touch our double fried, triple cheesed, super-sized (but Diet Coked) 150 pound over-weight American bodies.

Posted by: Live_Red | November 24, 2010 6:55 PM
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