I am very pleased to say that Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security by Kip Hawley and Nathan Means was one of the more interesting, engaging, and well-written books that I've gotten via LTER (which does tend to be a bit of a “pig in a poke”). Needless to say, that is not what one would expect of a book which is, at its most basic level, the story of the development of a government agency. I'm going to be referring to Kip Hawley as “the author” here, as he is the person brought in to the Department of Transportation to help develop the Transportation Security Administration, and so this is his story, but I strongly suspect that the readability and pacing of the book are the work of co-author Nathan Means, which has me considering looking up some of his other titles.
Permanent Emergency features an interweaving of two narrative threads, one being in Washington, with the development of the TSA, and one internationally, with the evolution of the terrorist threat. The book starts with the chaos of 9/11, with the DOT, FAA, FEMA, and the military trying to find out what was happening and what they had to do. There is a section recapping that prior to Hawley being pulled back to D.C. … he had been a Transportation advisor in the Reagan administration, a Vice President at Union Pacific Railroad, and was an executive with a Silicon Valley transportation supply-chain software venture when Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta's staff convinced him to come on board to help build the new organization.
Obviously, everything had changed in a moment about flight safety … after decades of the “standard procedure” being to cooperate with hijackers because they were likely to have the plane land some place they could collect a ransom and disappear, it was now evident that new players were in the game, and were looking to rack up maximum body counts … any way they could. Following the 1988 cargo-hold bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, most attention was directed in things being checked on the flight, but following 9/11, everybody going on board a plane was now having to be considered a potential threat.
Hawley paints a picture of an on-going cat-and-mouse game with the terrorists on new technology. Some of these will be instantly familiar … the attempted “shoe bombing” that has an on-going legacy of having to go through security checks unshod, and the “underwear bomber” whose attempts to set off a chemical mix in his drawers raised an entire different set of concerns. There are a LOT of “odd rules” that have been in place over the past decade or so which get explained here. For instance, the “3-1-1” rule – 3oz bottles, in a 1qt ziplock bag, 1 bag per passenger – is based on the study of the various chemical mixes that the terrorists were using. The 3oz size proved to be too little material to be able to efficiently mix an explosive (even though they had to admit that the answer to the question of “could multiple terrorists mix their individual sets of liquids and make a bomb?” was a somewhat disconcerting “maybe”).
One of the on-going “technical” threads here is the development of explosives based on hydrogen peroxide – one of the key liquids of concern. Fortunately:
Further technical advancements (like a device that can “sniff” even microscopic particles seeping out of containers) have led to the easing of these rules over time.The hydrogen peroxide formula was extremely sensitive to minute variation, meaning that a spilled drop made a difference in whether or not it would work. Even with a world-class laboratory, the success rate in mixing the formula was around one in three. In addition, the fluid was dangerously corrosive and would cause severe burns if exposed to skin, not to mention that it had a strong pungent odor that would attract attention in airport secure areas …
… the baggie took al Qaeda's explosive of choice off the table for aviation attacks, obviating years of their research and development and pushing them to consider less effective bomb formulas.
In 2005, Hawley becomes TSA Administrator and is thrown in to the deep end of the intelligence world … one thing that he implements, while not quite up to the Israeli model, are “BDOs” - Behavior Detection Officers, based on a program independently started by Paul Maccario at Boston's Logan Airport.
There is also a significant amount of material here about Hurricane Katrina, as the agencies involved in the terrorism fight also were pulled in for that. Especially inspirational was how the Air Marshals were able to be mobilized from postings all over the country to act as key “first responders” keeping order at airports in the affected area.The BDOs were trained to refer to a sheet that scored various behaviors – distress, fear, fidgeting – on how alarming they were. BDOs used a cocktail of targeted emotions that drive the point-based system. By weighing different behaviors on a score sheet and confirming that they observed multiple alarming emotions, BDOs were able to incorporate a more objective approach to what is perceived to be a very subjective technique. Every day in America 2 million people walk onto planes from every possible ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial background. The score sheet was meant to provide some sort of threshold before selecting people for additional screening or questioning, and hopefully protect us and the passengers alike from mistakes driven by preconceptions of what a terrorist looks like.
Frankly, both sides of the story are sufficiently complicated and detailed that I really can't do justice to them in this review, but Permanent Emergency follows both with the tenacity of a good spy novel. There is obviously a lot of stuff we're not being told, but the amount of information here is really remarkable. Very useful, also, are sections at the end listing the names of all they key players (on both sides), and page after page of organizational acronyms, going into what they stand for and what those organizations do … fascinating stuff. There is also a time-line from 9/11/01 through 07/01/10 when a new permanent TSA Administrator was put in to replace the author.
Permanent Emergency just came out this summer, so is likely still out in the bookstores. It's available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, and the on-line big boys have it at about a quarter off of cover price, which might be your best bet for picking it up since it hasn't seemed to have filtered down to the used channels to have a substantial discount (when individual shipping's added). I found this fascinating, and think it would appeal to anybody who likes spy thrillers, and books about politics.