Erroll Southers’ Ambitious Plans for TSA

Erroll Southers, the man who would have been the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), had a plan for renewal at the agency.

He would have invested in the people of TSA, focusing his energy on the front lines.

"The people of TSA are what make it work," Southers told in an exclusive interview.

"I know we are all interested in technology. We have to be very careful when we embrace technology as a silver bullet. I was extremely interested in looking at new training methodologies and standardized training methodologies and giving people the opportunity to promote and enhance their careers-and really if nothing else just to get them to internalize the mission and to make them understand what it is they do," he said.

Adopting new technological devices in a knee-jerk fashion to the last terrorist threat would not make the agency stronger, Southers prescribed. Instead, TSA must improve its capabilities as an organization that makes the best use of intelligence.

"TSA was created to counter terrorism. I see it as a counter-terrorism organization," Southers commented. "The title Transportation Security Administration is one thing, but it was not designed to be responsive to national disasters although it has assisted in those efforts. It was not designed to participate in recovery although it has participated in those efforts. It is a prevent-detect-deter-defend organization. So I wanted people to embrace that."

Societies that have built up resilience to terrorism–like the United Kingdom and Israel–have done so because their security agencies have educated the public on the threat they face. In the same way, TSA should reach out to the American public and activity engage US citizens as participants in its security strategy instead of merely customers of it, Southers stated.

That’s more important than ever because foreign terrorist organizations have begun to achieve important goals–among them, the ability to recruit homegrown terrorists with Western passports, who can travel to the United States and other countries at any time to launch attacks.

To combat that threat, TSA must make better use of intelligence, remarked Southers, who serves as head of intelligence for Los Angeles World Airports, the airport authority that includes Los Angeles International (LAX) Airport.

"Here at the airport where I am now, I have two detectives that sit on federal task forces and both of those task forces are part of the intelligence community. That should not be an anomaly; that should be common practice," Southers declared.

"I was hoping TSA would become more risk-driven and intelligence-driven," Southers said of his plans for the agency. "If we can vet populations that go through the airport, it gives us the ability to focus on the risk. The risk is in the unvetted population. Our throughput would have been greatly increased. It was a wonderful opportunity to do some things as they were doing abroad–make the public safer and make the public more confident and hopefully have greater success of deterring and detecting future terrorist attacks."

Technological solutions

Although the use of technology to detect threats at airports is important, Southers cautioned it should be viewed as the last line of defense.

"The policy we have here at LAX is if we find the person at the security checkpoint, we failed," Southers said of stopping terrorists.

He emphasized the need for consistency in technological devices throughout US airports. LAX itself has several different kinds of explosives trace detectors at its various terminals. Making those consistent throughout the airport would provide TSA personnel with confidence that the machines work in the same way.

In addition to consistency in technology, Southers advocated investments in technology that can receive upgrades.

"We can’t dump technology or come up with a cost-prohibitive add-on because we have now identified a new threat," he stated.

Foreign terrorist organizations have developed aggressive science and technology wings. They have sought to recruit scientists, engineers, chemists and doctors, Southers noted. They are attempting to produce explosives that are undetectable.

Once TSA discovers a new threat, it should not have to throw away the technology it has purchased to detect it, Southers asserted. Instead, as with the advanced technology X-ray devices TSA is now buying, experts should be able to add capabilities to existing devices to empower them to detect new threats.

Many critics of TSA see the use of more whole body imagers as a means to uncovering threats difficult to detect. The backscatter X-ray and millimeter wave devices reveal to TSA transportation security officers items that are concealed under the clothing of air passengers.

But Southers would not have rushed to embrace widespread use of whole body imagers.

"The technology is very good," Southers commented. "The challenge that we have is trying to balance security with civil liberties and privacy. TSA has done a tremendous job with regards to their policies and procedures as to where the operators sit, how the data is maintained, and then it is deleted.

"At the same time, the users and the people that are going to operate that technology have to be trained appropriately," he added. "Then, quite frankly, we are back to risk and we are back to intelligence. With all due respect, how much risk is there in a certain age group? How much risk is there in a certain demographic? I’m suggesting that we should be looking at behaviors; I’m suggesting that we should be looking at histories."

Technology, Southers said, is the last piece of the security apparatus.


Southers withdrew his nomination to head TSA Wednesday, after a long hold placed on his confirmation by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC).

DeMint placed the hold on Southers due to the senator’s opposition to collective bargaining rights for TSA screeners. Collective bargaining would permit screeners to unionize and negotiate workplace conditions, but doing so could threat national security in the view of DeMint and other Republican senators.

Southers was disappointed that he could not overcome the senator’s objections, despite the fact that he took no stance on the collective bargaining issue.

"I’m probably one of the most apolitical people you are ever going to meet," Southers protested. "I served a Republican governor; I was nominated by a Democratic president; I am acounter-terrorism expert.

"I have been through a process that politicized not just an issue but also my career. I think a tremendous disservice has been done to the American people when they allow an issue to become the boiling point for whether or not we move forward. I am speaking specifically about Senator DeMint and collective bargaining."

The process will likely discourage other very qualified people from considering the job as TSA chief, Southers remarked.

His colleagues in aviation security must now pause and consider what the Senate might put their lives through over an issue that basically represents a sideshow, Southers lamented. The result is that "qualified, deserving, capable, intelligent and talented Americans" will "second guess their dedication or engagement because of the process."

Southers withdrew his nomination so TSA could move forward. The agency, which has been without permanent leadership since Barack Obama became president, has faced new scrutiny since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab threatened a US-bound flight with a powdered explosive on Christmas Day.

But instead of concentrating on how to improve TSA, DeMint and others chose to focus on collective bargaining.

"To me, that is the ultimate disservice to our country," Southers said.

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