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T S A Overwhelmed*
Twin Missions Overwhelmed TSA
Airport Agency Strives to Create Self, Stop Terror
By Greg Schneider and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 3, 2002; Page A01
When a gunman opened fire at a Los Angeles International Airport ticket counter on July 4, the nation's new agency in charge of airport security got its first chance to swing into action.
Instead, it claimed the shooting was outside its jurisdiction.
After bullets sprayed across the crowded holiday terminal, killing three, the agency's director at the time, John W. Magaw, looked on helplessly as his own spokesmen dismissed the incident as a matter for local police and the FBI. "That's nuts. That is nuts," Magaw said later.
But by that holiday, with the nation on edge about a terrorist attack, Magaw had lost control of the Transportation Security Administration. He had run the high-profile, multibillion-dollar agency far astray from what Congress and the Bush administration said they wanted, alienating everyone from local airport operators to commercial airline pilots.
The agency simply couldn't keep up with the twin demands of creating itself and devising a system for stopping terrorists. Internally, there was tension over the TSA's mission, with a growing core of leaders steeped in law enforcement at odds with political forces demanding customer service. Magaw and his deputies clashed with key members of Congress and the White House over budgets and left airport managers around the country feeling shut out.
The fact that the TSA was flat-footed on the day of the most violent attack on U.S. aviation since Sept. 11 underscores how, after nearly a year of building a new federal agency to take over airport security, few broad changes have taken place.
A handful of airports are beginning to see tidily uniformed federal screeners at checkpoints. But the TSA has struggled to keep up with hiring, and many airports still use the same private screening companies that were in place a year ago.
The government has ordered sophisticated bomb-detection machines to scan luggage, but the program is behind schedule. What's more, cargo security has not been substantially improved.
At ticket counters and gates, airline and security employees paw through travelers' intimate belongings in suitcase searches. But choosing a passenger for such scrutiny is often random. The government is developing a new computer system to identify people with questionable backgrounds, but now it is dependent on antiquated software that assumes terrorists book flights by paying with cash, buy one-way tickets or catch flights at the last minute.
So why, given the deep national resolve to fix airport security after the Sept. 11 attacks, has so little been done?
"We got to the point where we didn't have credibility. . . . We were not moving the ball down the field," said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, whose department oversees the TSA. Mineta tried to remedy the situation less than two weeks after the July 4 shootings by firing Magaw.
But there were many forces gnawing at the ambitious effort to create the biggest new government agency since World War II, an effort that will consume about $6.5 billion this fiscal year alone.
Some of the most fundamental weaknesses in the system took root at the very beginning. And they looked, at the time, like strengths.
A New Approach
With its full fury directed at preventing further terrorist attacks, Congress resolved last fall to take a completely new approach to aviation security. Every past security rule that had been beaten down by the airlines or airports would not only be reinstated but enforced by deadlines.
Flimsy cockpit doors needed to be secured. All checked luggage would be scanned for explosives. Airport screeners would be given incentives to do their jobs well. Flight attendants and pilots would get 21st-century training to deal with hijackers.
Magaw, a 67-year-old former head of the Secret Service, seemed to fit what Congress wanted in a leader of the new agency: a powerful, independent-minded administrator who could ignore politics and other influences in pursuit of airport security.
An imposing man with the forearms of a stevedore and the wardrobe of a chief executive, Magaw said later that he had felt obligated to take the job because he thought his law enforcement background would be helpful. There was also the fact that it was a Bush White House doing the asking.
Magaw has been intimate with the Bush family for more than two decades because of his tenure in the Secret Service. Two portraits hang in the living room of Magaw's modest home: a line drawing of Magaw, and a much larger one of the first President Bush. A framed note from the senior Bush testifies to the "depth of emotion" the family felt for Magaw.
Lawmakers seemed to welcome the choice. Congress "invested in you unprecedented executive authority . . . unlike anyone in the government except maybe the president," Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee, told Magaw on Jan. 23. "As far as I'm concerned, you don't need to check with Mr. Mineta or anybody except maybe the president of the United States."
Asked if he had any questions, Magaw answered in the clipped tones of a soldier: "No, I clearly understand your closing instructions there and I will abide by them."
Magaw immediately began building a law enforcement-flavored empire that was reluctant to answer to outsiders. Much of his management team came from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Secret Service. And many of the federal security directors -- the officials at every airport who are to coordinate and enforce the central security plan -- were former police chiefs, Secret Service agents and military officials.
Aviation experts watched the parade of appointments with gathering horror. "They're hiring guys with no experience in airports or aviation," said Douglas R. Laird, a consultant and former head of security for Northwest Airlines. "To think they could go in and in two weeks be making valid decisions is . . . rather ludicrous."
Magaw and his staff focused on the details of creating the agency -- picking a logo, designing uniforms for federal screeners -- and on organizational structure. But to outsiders it seemed they were ignoring more urgent tasks.
Airport managers in particular were worried about how massive changes in security procedures would affect their terminals. Many agreed with James A. Wilding, head of the agency that runs Dulles International and Reagan National airports, who viewed the TSA as infuriatingly slow to make decisions, considering the deadlines it faced.
The agency spent too much time organizing itself, Wilding said. "If you only have 13 1/2 months you kind of can't afford to spend half the time on the paperwork. The pure truth of the matter is, that's what happened."
But Magaw, who repeatedly reminded Congress that when he started it was just him and "a piece of paper," argued that he needed time to get the organization in place before they could go spending billions of public dollars.
"It's one thing if you have an organization. It's another thing if you're trying to hire the person to do that for you. It just wasn't quick enough for them. They became fairly impatient," Magaw said in an interview.
Although Magaw rarely gave interviews while at the TSA -- arguing internally that agency officials were disclosing too much to the media -- he agreed to speak to The Washington Post, his first interview since leaving office, because he said he wanted to explain his view of the history of the agency.
Magaw said that he appreciated the delicate nature of the TSA's job -- with the financial fate of a major industry, the airlines, hanging on its actions but that he believed a tough approach was warranted by the extreme threat of terrorism. He hired lots of people with law enforcement backgrounds, he said, because they would need such experience and credibility with agencies such as the FBI when the next attack came.
He also thought that was what lawmakers wanted. "It was very clear they wanted us to . . . really come in and set some strict standards," Magaw said. "Public service, courtesy, but at the same time security, because of the tragedy."
Magaw also said he focused first on the basic building blocks of the new bureaucracy because he had little choice. A government agency can't hire without a personnel office, he said, and it can't spend money without a budget office.
One of the defining challenges facing the TSA and airports this year is the congressional mandate that every piece of checked luggage be screened for bombs by Dec. 31. That meant managers had to figure out ways to get huge numbers of massive bomb-screening machines into their airports. In some cases, it would mean knocking down walls and reinforcing floors.
Some airport managers begged for permission to tackle the problems on their own, or even to use alternate technology. Dallas-Fort Worth offered to spend $200 million of its own money to set up a bomb-detection system, if the TSA would approve it quickly. But the agency's top administrators said they didn't want to rush into approving one system before they understood the complex problem nationwide.
As the TSA put off buying machines, it became less and less likely that factories could produce a sufficient number by year's end. Only two companies -- L-3 Communications and InVision Technologies Inc. -- were certified to make such machines in this country, and neither had built more than 14 machines per month.
Likewise, contracts for training passenger screeners and for remaking airport checkpoints were pushed back, week after week, and airport managers were left to wonder what was going on.
Not only did airport directors feel ignored, they felt bullied. In one oft-cited incident, the manager of the Orlando airport found himself threatened with arrest when he tried to enter his own parking garage after it had been taken over by one of the TSA's contractors.
As tensions rose, Magaw agreed in May to meet with airport managers at their national convention in Dallas. The managers were relieved, thinking that they would finally learn how the TSA planned to get the bomb-screening machines into their terminals and who was going to pay the billions of dollars it would cost to equip all 429 U.S. commercial airports.
But his speech was not what they expected.
Aided by a big-screen display on the TSA's management structure, Magaw "spent five minutes of his presentation on the TSA logo," said Todd Hauptli, a top lobbyist for two groups representing airports. "It was painful."
The basic bomb-screening questions remained unanswered.
A Budget Face-Off
In April, Magaw accompanied Mineta to the Cabinet Room for a formal budget presentation to President Bush. Mineta did most of the talking, outlining proposals for staffing, technology and money, resources he said were needed to quickly overhaul airport security and protect passengers.
When he finished, White House budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. spoke up. Those numbers, Daniels said, were off target. He questioned Mineta's assumptions about how many employees and machines the agency needed. Magaw looked on in rising fury as Daniels used charts to systematically undercut Mineta's proposal.
With his helicopter, Marine One, waiting for him out on the lawn, President Bush tried to defuse the tension. "You know, I like debate," the president said, Magaw remembered later. "You guys go back, rework this, we'll talk next week."
When the president left, Magaw approached Daniels with barely controlled rage and reprimanded him for making the transportation secretary look foolish. "That was very disrespectful to a person who served his country the way this man has," Magaw said.
Word of the facedown spread quickly among TSA management. It illustrated two things, several sources said: Magaw's instincts as a protector and lawman, and his tin ear for managing political relationships. The gatekeeper of the administration's budget, money the TSA desperately needed, was not the right person to antagonize.
Similarly, Magaw had failed to connect with Congress. His inability to explain the delays in hiring and buying bomb-detection machines began to irritate the same people who once praised him.
He received harsh lectures from members who didn't understand why the agency's budget request ballooned to $4.4 billion and why it wanted to hire people whose jobs weren't specified in the law -- such as ticket-takers, criminal investigators and exit-watchers. The $410,000 cost of outfitting executive offices didn't help, either.
Lawmakers' questions about the number of employees infuriated TSA insiders. Last year, Congress determined that the new agency would need about 30,000 people to take over checkpoint-screening duties. Then Congress further required the TSA to scan all checked luggage for bombs, doubling the number of employees needed. But many lawmakers remained fixed on the original number of workers.
The salary criticisms also stung. TSA officials originally believed they would get whatever resources they needed for their mission. Starting from scratch, Magaw believed his first hires had to be top-notch managers, and he argued that he had to pay for quality.
But the TSA did a poor job communicating its intentions to Congress. Magaw said he didn't want to talk numbers until he felt they were solid, even though he knew his refusal to justify expenditures was working against him.
Lawmakers "became frustrated and it was very difficult for them to give us the time to come up with accurate numbers," Magaw said. "We didn't want to get out there with a number that we just knew wasn't close to being right."
The TSA also continued to suffer from fragmenting within its own organization.
Mineta had helped start the agency by borrowing a group of experts from some of America's leading companies -- such as Intel Corp., FedEx Corp., Marriott International Inc. and Fluor Corp. -- to bring the whiz and flash of high commerce to government work. They operated almost around the clock, cranking out Powerpoint presentations, but often found their recommendations languishing as TSA officials put off decisions.
Meanwhile, many former Federal Aviation Administration security officials who transferred to the new agency felt stigmatized by the Sept. 11 events that had occurred on their watch. Some resented Magaw's reticent cops and Mineta's top-dollar suits, and they felt their aviation experience was being ignored.
For example, although an FAA committee of industry experts was designing an employee-identification system to replace the hundreds of different badges used at airports around the country, the TSA convened its own effort. Confused contractors made presentations to both groups.
One TSA insider said the organization simply never managed to formally link all its disparate parts. "There was no bible, there wasn't enough time to write everything down," the source said. "If it's not written down what you're supposed to do, you're toast. In the day-to-day, that's what we didn't have time to do."
Time was short to begin with, and mounting outside pressures just made things worse, from Magaw's point of view. If the agency had been put into the Secret Service or the FBI, he said -- organizations already set up to handle security - the work might have gone more quickly. Nonetheless, Magaw stuck to his methodical path even as he saw congressional backing slipping away.
Long lines in airports around the country only ratcheted up the pressure from lawmakers. "They go home every weekend, they hear customers complaining, airports complaining," Magaw said. "So that was a terrible frustration for them, I know."
Sensing that the TSA was losing support on all fronts, forces unhappy with the agency began to mobilize.
The airports, united in their frustration with the TSA, turned to a sympathetic group of frequent fliers: members of Congress. They found support for a proposal to extend the Dec. 31 bomb-detection deadline. The House has approved extending the deadline for a year, and the Senate is expected to consider the same measure soon.
Airline pilots, angered when Magaw rejected their proposal to carry guns in the cockpit, also turned to Congress -- arguing that the TSA's failures had left them unprotected.
As political confidence in the TSA plummeted, lawmakers previously opposed to the idea of guns changed their minds. "The pilots are saying, this is moving too slowly," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who eventually proposed a bill on the topic. "The argument that the pilot was the last line of defense was very persuasive to a lot of people."
As the scenes of chaos at LAX disrupted July 4 cookouts across the nation, the TSA's critics were given one more reason to believe that the young agency was lost. Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian immigrant, managed to kill two bystanders before being gunned down by an El Al airline security guard. The FBI headed the investigation, while the TSA's security director for LAX sat in Washington, appointed only two days before.
Nine days later, the House passed a bill to provide guns to pilots.
A few days after that, Mineta summoned Magaw to his office and demanded his resignation.
Magaw later said he was surprised, but others in the TSA said he shouldn't have been. Just the month before, Mineta had signaled his displeasure by installing former Coast Guard commandant James M. Loy -- a politically savvy, widely respected administrator -- as Magaw's deputy.
The day Mineta announced the Loy hire to a conference room full of top agency officials, he emphasized that the TSA had approached its job with too much of a police force attitude. It was not intended to be a law enforcement agency. It should provide security and customer service, Mineta said. It should be responsive to all the stakeholders in American air travel -- from passengers to airlines to airport managers.
As soon as Mineta left the room, Magaw turned to other officials. "Boy," he said, "I'm not sure where that's coming from." The business about not being a law enforcement agency? "That's the first time that he's said that," Magaw said.
Loy has since replaced Magaw at the helm of the agency. The Transportation Department maintains that the agency's mission has not changed, only that it will now be managed more efficiently and responsively. With roughly 15,000 screeners hired, the agency still needs another 35,000 workers by year's end.
But the TSA is, in some ways, starting over.
In his first few weeks on the job, Loy has traveled to airports across the country, learning the names of the airport managers in each city and trying to make amends. He is promising a more customer-friendly TSA.
Along the way he has sweetened the pot by offering to relax certain small security rules that had irritated airlines and passengers. For instance, he has eliminated the prohibition on carrying cups of coffee through checkpoints and lifted the requirement that airline personnel ask passengers if anyone has handled their luggage.
Several larger policies decided by Magaw, such as the opposition to arming pilots, are now under review. The agency also is looking to develop a trusted-traveler program for frequent fliers, an idea pushed by airlines but opposed by Magaw.
Loy also has done something Magaw went down determined never to do: Conceded that the TSA can't meet its big bomb-detection deadline.
Now sifting job offers from his tidy retirement townhouse in Maryland, Magaw has given thought to what went sour at the TSA. While some would argue that he was the wrong man for the job, Magaw sees it differently. He believes the agency will be able to restore confidence to American travelers -- if it moves next year to the new Department of Homeland Security, as the president has proposed.
"It really boils down to that they put it in the wrong place, and when it gets to Homeland Security . . . you'll see it sort itself out," Magaw said. "That's not a criticism of Transportation; it's just not their cup of tea."
Staff writer Robert O'Harrow Jr. contributed to this report.
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