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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Close encounters of the unpleasant kind

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?

Like all organizations that find themselves in the middle of a serious shooting war, TSA's fundamental challenge is figuring out how it got itself into the situation to begin with.

Think back to the days following last Christmas's nearly successful attempt by the underwear bomber to bring down a crowded passenger jet. Everyone saw the new-age scanners that promised better views of weapons, including those not made of metal--and of everything else under a person's clothes. Everyone knew that screeners would be amping up screening to "touch my junk" once terrorists tried to hide explosives thereabouts. And everyone's always known that ducking or failing a screening machine is an invitation for, shall we say, a close encounter of a most unpleasant kind.

Since everyone knew this was coming, TSA failed in talking people through the new steps--what
was happening and why, in advance, instead of allowing iPhone recordings to rule the agenda. Once a leader has to mount explanations after the fact, the game is mostly lost.

Going back: One of John Pistole's great challenges as TSA administrator is that he wakes up
every morning to learn about things most of us are grateful not to know. With terrorists continuing to fixate on blowing planes out of the sky and finding new places, like printer cartridges, to hide their explosives, there's no returning to old-style screening. Who would want to wake up the day after a decision to strategically retreat, only to discover that a clever terrorist had crawled through the crack the leader had just made?

Weathering the storm isn't a good option either. People don't like waiting in snaking lines at
airports and being pawed by blue-shirted people they don't know, no matter how serious the threat. It's an especially bad time to be fighting through this backlash. After a long midterm campaign of attacks on government, anyone drawing a government paycheck can feel the public's deep distrust of anything governmental. More of the same will only drive TSA deeper into the public's funk.

TSA is in a tough spot. Every encounter with the screening process is destined to be unpleasant: inconvenient waits, intrusions into personal privacy, the risks of rude workers--all the fun of dealing with the IRS, with the awful specter of September 11 in the background as the inescapable reason for the encounter to begin with.

The only real hope is not strategic reversal or weathering the storm. TSA needs a frank conversation with the public about mission and our shared interest in its success. Its job isn't really screening passengers but keeping travel safe. A little less debate about touching our junk and a little more about safe skies would go a long way toward changing the tone--and giving the late-night comedians a smaller target to shoot at. And it needs a little help from elected officials brave enough to resist the cheap shot long enough to level with the people about the fundamental stakes.

And, by the way: if you think we've seen a wild ride here, wait until we deal with the collision of
personal privacy and fundamental security that will come when we take cyber security seriously.
All the more reason to think hard about how to get this right.

By Donald Kettl

 |  November 22, 2010; 7:25 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Failures , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: TSA--and politicians--need to make more unpopular decisions | Next: Four ways to evaluate such a big decision


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Get serious! Nothing TSA is doing has anything to do with stopping terrorism! It is politics and money; BS and Money; creating petty bureacrats and money, avoiding responsibility and money; having power and money! With cockpit doors sealed, another 911 debacle can not occur; so the danger is less than before 911... so give up the stupidty already! Baaaaa!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | November 24, 2010 11:09 AM
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The error here is in over-evaluating the threat which these terrorists pose. The actual threat is small relative to other threats. For instance there is a 1:10,408,947 chance of being harmed by a terrorist airplane event 0.00000000096% which is less than your odds of being struck by lightning at 1:500,000 or 0.00000002%. You are 20 times more likely to be struck by lightning. So the government has over-reacted to the potential threat by several orders of magnitude.

Posted by: theartistpoet | November 24, 2010 1:43 AM
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I agree up to a point. I had no issue with TSA procedure prior to this. Yes, it's inconvenient not to bring my big bottle of conditioner, but whatever. That's an inconvenience.

Finding out that the full body scans produce images that are arguably pornagraphic is not an inconvenience; it's an absolute violation.

Allowing someone to touch my crotch and breasts is not inconvenient; it's a violation.

Being forced to take a flight with urine soaked clothing because the idiot TSO was too aggressive in his "pat down" is not inconvenient; it's a travesty!

What if the above example had been a child with a bladder bag? The child might have died.

That's what's going to happen if TSA doesn't get over itself. Lawsuits, after lawsuits and someone will die do to the carelessness and absolute lack of humanity when dealing with travelers with medical issues.

Posted by: hebe1 | November 23, 2010 3:36 PM
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