Ex-TSA head Kip Hawley: Airport security should focus on bombs and behavior, not knives and liquids

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer watches over a line of people waiting to pass through security screening at New York's LaGuardia Airport in November 2010 file photo.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

(CBS News) Every day, nearly two million travelers pass through more than 450 commercial airports in the U.S. Former Transportation Security Administration head Kip Hawley says that, for most of them, flying is an "unending nightmare" because of TSA security measures.

"We ran so fast after 9/11 to put in measures to stop future attacks that we just kept moving," Hawley said on "CBS This Morning." He believes some of those measures are no longer needed.

Hawley's offers recommendations to revamp airport security in his highly critical new book, "Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security", co-written with Nathan Means.

He believes risk management formulas can be employed to remove certain items, such as knives and liquids, from the prohibited items list. Hawley says TSA officers spend too much time searching for them instead of the real threats to a plane.

"You can't take over a plane with a knife," he told Charlie Rose, because the cockpit doors are now secure. "It's a risk management issue. You could say, 'Yes, somebody could bring a knife and stab the guy next to him,' that's a risk. When I tried to get small scissors taken off the prohibited items list, there was a scream of, 'There'll be blood running in the aisles!'

"I think what risk management would dictate is you've got to find the bombs, because a bomb will take down a plane. And if you're so busy fishing around looking for Swiss Army knives, it diverts your focus. So my theory is, let's not have the officers look for knives and small things. Focus on bombs, toxins, things that could destroy the plane."

Hawley suggested that, in the case of liquids, the public can decide for itself whether it wants to bring them on board. "We can detect threat liquids, but because it produces false positives the lines would be long," he told Gayle King. "So open that up to the public, say, '[We] have a couple of lanes over here that if you want to bring your big bottles, knock yourself out, but it's a little longer line than if you leave it behind.'"

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Hawley also said TSA can be smarter about its screening of passengers (focusing on the real threats instead of a 75-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair), and can avoid charges of profiling by using behavior-based screening rather than appearance-based.

An airline passenger gets patted down after going through a full-body scan at O'Hare Airport in Chicago in this November 2010 file photo. Scott Olson/Getty Images

"You can't look at what you think a terrorist looks like," Hawley said. "You have to go by something in the physical behavior that's independent of age, gender, ethnicity that will give you a clue, and then you can follow up on it."

He said that TSA can follow the Israeli model of air security in which the interview of passengers is key. "We have the capability to do that behavior [screening]," Hawley said. "These are smart people and they're well-trained, but if you just tell the work force to get into people's bags and fish for stuff, they're not using their brains."

When Rose asked if there is resistance to being smarter about airport security, Hawley said there was. "Because if you allow people to be smart, that means you allow them to make mistakes. And then if you allow people to make mistakes, you're going to end up on this show or others, explaining how is it possible someone in your organization [screwed up]."

Hawley also criticized a proposal by Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., to abolish what he called the "bloated bureaucracy" of TSA and privatize the functions of airport screening. Mica, John Miller pointed out, has also received $81,000 in contributions from firms that would become the contractors for airport security.

Hawley said Mica's proposal would simply replicate TSA's current method and put a surcharge on top of it. "Just asking somebody else to do exactly the same thing as TSA with the price markup isn't really getting at [the problem]," he said.