TSA evolves beyond "everyone's a terrorist" approach

Monday - 11/21/2011, 11:54am EST

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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By Michael O'Connell
Web Editor
Federal News Radio

The Transportation Security Administration is marking 10 years of existence. Today, the agency employs about 50,000 transportation security officers, who screen about 2 million passengers every day at the nation's airports.

"Obviously, TSA came about in the wake of the 9-11 attack and the focus was on al-Qaida," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He spoke Monday to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris about TSA's evolving role.

"That threat certainly has changed and morphed over the last 10 years, and TSA is going to have to evolve its organization with that threat," he said.

One example of TSA's evolving approach is its move to a more risk-based security model. In the past, the agency functioned under a zero-tolerance mentality, in which every individual was viewed as a potential terrorist.

"Going forward, that's no longer reasonable financially and it's no longer reasonable from a security perspective," Nelson said. "So you're going to see them focus where the threats are and try to eliminate that risk and be more targeted."

Nelson said TSA's primary focus will be on threats to the transportation system.

"As we move away from a centralized core organization to a more diffused threat, where we see lone wolves or individuals that are radicalized trying to penetrate the system, that's where we're going to see TSA trying to evolve its policies and its technologies," he said.

This new approach presents a greater challenge for TSA and the Department of Homeland Security, as they try to fulfill their mandate of keeping the aviation and transportation systems secure.

For TSA, though, the toughest challenge it faces may be how it handles its day-to-day interaction with the public at airport security checkpoints.

"It's probably the most difficult aspect that TSA has," Nelson said. "Every single day, probably unlike any other organization in the federal government, they are constantly trying to find that balance on an individual level, between security and privacy. That's something that they're never going to be able to get perfect because everyone's viewpoint of security and privacy is different, but TSA has to do that as part of their daily job."

The results of a recent survey conducted by The Partnership for Public Service placed TSA near the bottom of its list of best federal places to work. Nelson acknowledged that TSA was trying to build a quality workforce and that its formation was one of the largest federal government mobilizations in recent memory. Despite some difficulties, retention numbers are up and more experienced TSA officers are in place.

"You're going to see the workforce get better and the working environment get better," Nelson said. "But it's an untenable position, again, because every single day, the individuals of frontline officers of TSA are interacting with the public on a personal level."

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