CHDS thesis laid foundation for TSA screening policy

Armed with his CHDS master’s degree thesis and a supportive leader, Center for Homeland Defense and Security master’s degree graduate Kenneth Fletcher is helping to change the way the Transportation Security Administration screens air travelers.

Fletcher was named TSA Chief Risk Officer in February 2014, a position in which he is responsible for setting the long range strategic vision for risk management and for expanding TSA’s Risk-based Security (RBS) philosophy across all areas of the agency by developing and implementing enterprise risk management. Fletcher wrote his policy paper in the CHDS course Introduction to Homeland Security on adopting a risk-based approach to security screening. As he began researching various alternatives he found that, despite frequent calls for TSA to adopt either the Israeli model or a risk based approach, the arguments were entirely emotional and no analytical comparison existed.

Simultaneously, the growing dissatisfaction of the public regarding what many viewed as overly intrusive screening procedures helped him see the idea of more aggressive physical security simply wasn’t sustainable from a political, social acceptance, or economic point of view.

1) After a successful class presentation, Fletcher decided to change his thesis topic to make a case for TSA to implement risk-based passenger screening. His thesis, titled “Aviation Security: A Case for Risk-Based Passenger Screening,” challenged 10 years of policy that called for onsite screening of all passengers in the same way, and was a professional risk according to several colleagues.

For passenger screening, the aim of RBS is to assess a passenger’s risk before the traveler gets to the airport line, and then to apply the appropriate physical security measures when they get to the checkpoint based on that risk judgment.

“Staying with the one-size-fits-all policy was the comfortable approach,” he said. “I thought if challenging the status quo jeopardizes my career, then perhaps I don’t want to work here.”

That risk was overcome when TSA Administrator John Pistole backed implementing the change.

“TSA’s ability to implement RBS was dependent upon Administrator Pistole’s willingness to make bold change in our approach to aviation security” Fletcher said. “As the former FBI Deputy Director, Pistole came to TSA with a considerable background in intelligence and with deep relationships throughout the national security community.  He had the credibility needed to move TSA away from the one-size-fits-all approach to passenger screening that dominated the decade following 9/11.”

2) Implementing RBS means encouraging travelers to enroll in DHS trusted traveler programs such as the TSA Pre-check, or Global Entry program operated by Customs and Border Protection, Fletcher noted.

These trusted travelers programs facilitate the movement of low-risk travelers by expediting the physical security processes, and support focusing limited resources on travelers assessed as higher-risk or for whom TSA know less about – essentially shrinking the size of the haystack.

“We have an obligation to find more effective and efficient ways to secure commercial aviation” Fletcher said. “By focusing our resources on the greater threats we are able to get the biggest return on our security investment and create the greatest value for the American people. The people we know least about or have assessed as higher risk are getting the best technology focused on them which improves security. This approach has the added value of making the whole process more efficient for the low risk traveler.”

3) Shortly after TSA began expanding its pre-check program nationally, the agency set a goal where 25 percent of daily travelers would receive some form of expedited screening by the end of calendar year 2013, and a 50 percent goal by the end of 2014, a target Fletcher said as off fall 2014 the agency was well on its way to meeting.

“I encourage everyone eligible to participate, and would like to see the majority of the traveling public directly enroll in a DHS trusted traveler program so that we can better focus our resources on the more risky travelers,” Fletcher said. “As a result, we can make the screening process easier than ever for lower-risk passengers.”

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