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Book Review: Permanent Emergency 89

OverTheGeicoE writes "Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley has been in the news in recent months, talking about how the Transportation Security Administration is broken and how it can be fixed. Some of his TSA criticisms in the popular press seem to make sense. This seemed strange to me. Just last March he was defending TSA in a debate with Bruce Schneier in The Economist. Then, the very next month, he's criticizing his former agency as if he was on the other side of that debate to begin with. Why? I felt like I was missing something, so I decided to read his book to find out more about his position. The title of the book is Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security, and it is co-written by Nathan Means." Keep reading for the rest of OverTheGeicoE's review.
Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security
author Kip Hawley and Nathan Means
pages 260
publisher Palgrave Macmillan
rating 6
reviewer OverTheGeicoE
ISBN 978-0-230-12095-2
summary An inside look at TSA from its former leader.
The book is partly a memoir of Hawley's involvement with TSA, which predates his appointment as its administrator. Hawley helped architect the TSA shortly after it was first authorized. He left government service once that was finished, but came back again in 2005, appointed by President George W. Bush to become TSA's third administrator in four years. He stuck with the job until the exact moment Barack Obama was sworn in as President in January of 2009. If you're looking for insight into TSA's most controversial policies, the extensive use of body scanning and pat down searches, you won't find that in this book. Those policies were put in place by Hawley's successor almost two years later. The phrase 'body scan' is used exactly once.

The book breaks from the memoir style at times and changes to that of an action-suspense thriller. It is interwoven with segments of prose similar to a Tom Clancy novel. In these segments we learn about the life, and possibly the ultimate death, of an Al Qaeda operative who goes by multiple names throughout the course of the book. Raised in Austria, we follow the terrorist through training with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and his connection with various airline-related terrorist plots against the United States. Under Administrator Hawley, TSA uses all its intelligence resources to track his moves and act to thwart the terrorist's nefarious schemes.

The Clancyesque sections are a severe weakness of the book, bordering on laughable at times. For example, there's a description of a Casio watch that reminded me of a Dave Barry parody of Tom Clancy. The action-suspense writing style also tends to over-dramatize and exaggerate TSA's actual accomplishments. The intelligence sources TSA uses all belong to conventional intelligence agencies, both US and foreign. The event leading to the most dramatic moments of the book, the disruption of a liquid bomb plot, was the work of British intelligence and law enforcement in the UK. The authors describe in great, suspenseful detail that while the British are rounding up actual Al Qaeda cell members, TSA in the US is waging war against an entire phase of matter, one that covers about 70% of Earth's surface. Thanks to their determined efforts, TSA was able to ban liquids from carry on luggage literally overnight. However, in this and all other terrorist plots covered in this book, the authors never offer any evidence that TSA's use of its borrowed intelligence ever allowed TSA to disrupt any specific, credible, and imminent threat. So, if you like the idea of a Tom Clancy book where the Jack Ryan character agonizes over intel a lot but never actually does anything of provable value with it, this may be the book for you.

Although the writing style was problematic at times, it didn't totally undermine the value of the book. It helped me understand why mainstream media is so accepting of TSA. During Hawley's tenure, TSA made strong, successful efforts to woo the press, including interviews with CBS' 60 Minutes and appearances on Oprah. The good relationship established during Hawley's administration apparently continues to this day, despite the dramatic changes in operations imposed by his successor. The book also gives an amusing mini-bio of TSA's 'Blogger Bob' Burns, who has been called 'the Tokyo Rose of the modern age' for his defenses of TSA under John Pistole.

I've often wondered why TSA seems so unresponsive to the American public, and this book offered me a plausible explanation. Hawley seems to view TSA almost exclusively as a weapon in the US war against Al Qaeda. When TSA implements policies that seem crazy or ineffective to the rest of us, it doesn't use outside opinions to judge the effectiveness of its policies. Instead it uses information gathered from the intelligence community unavailable to outsiders. A policy change is considered effective if Al Qaeda reacts in a desirable way. For example, if a TSA operation deploys VIPR teams at public transportation centers and suspected Al Qaeda operatives leave the US afterwards, the operation is considered successful.

This book also helped me better understand Hawley's recent press comments. It sounds as if Hawley is saying that TSA's most controversial policies can be terminated if intelligence shows Al Qaeda to be on the decline. Now that he is outside TSA, Hawley seems to see what the American public does, and sees a reason to change security. If intelligence shows an increase of Al Qaeda activity, security can be raised again as needed.

This understanding of how TSA works is also confusing. What we're actually seeing from TSA is an expansion of their activities in recent years, with no meaningful or significant easing of its invasive passenger screening being proposed. Could that mean Al Qaeda is actually on the rise in some way not obvious to the general public? If not, Hawley's successor is a real bungler, and I would expect Hawley to call him that when given a chance. Instead, Hawley specifically refuses to second guess his successor at the end of his book, leaving me puzzled about how the US war against Al Qaeda is actually going.

Permanent Emergency is an interesting book. It certainly has flaws. The writing style is inconsistent and often unsatisfying. It is not entirely factually correct in many of its stories; TSA classifies a lot of information, and the authors admit to changing or concealing details for that and other reasons. The book does not attempt to tackle the most controversial aspects of today's TSA policies. Still, the book gives insight into how TSA was formed, what problems it was designed to address, and how it operates. TSA is so new, there are few sources of this type to examine right now, so any firsthand account is useful. I recommend this book to anyone concerned by TSA's operations, as it helps us understand how TSA became what it is now.

You can purchase Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Book Review: Permanent Emergency

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  • It's that stupid? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by khasim ( 1285 ) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday June 28, 2012 @05:27PM (#40486139)

    For example, if a TSA operation deploys VIPR teams at public transportation centers and suspected Al Qaeda operatives leave the US afterwards, the operation is considered successful.

    So there are people we SUSPECT are Al Qaeda ... but we're not going to arrest them when they try to leave the country.

    I mean, what possible information could they have that would be useful?

    None of this makes any sense.

  • by ZorroXXX ( 610877 ) <hlovdalNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday June 28, 2012 @05:35PM (#40486243)
    The phrase "Permanent Emergency" made me think of "war is peace".
  • by micheas ( 231635 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @05:36PM (#40486251) Homepage Journal

    If we ever built high speed rail taking the train would be a lot more viable. LAX to SFO with no checkin and an average speed of 165mph it would be a two hour trip.

    Of course that happening in a sane way probably needs California to partition so that Sacramento has no say in the matter.

  • Re:Aliens (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lightknight ( 213164 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @05:42PM (#40486327) Homepage

    Sadly, the constant blaring of the klaxons is likely to create a devastating scenario where a real threat goes unnoticed. Classic case of 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

    Well, they've been crying wolf for quite some time now. Can't wait to see what slips through the net due to their negligence / power schemes; smart money would say it will be something new.

  • by flaming error ( 1041742 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @06:01PM (#40486557) Journal

    It's hard to be serious and honest when your job is to put on a circus.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 28, 2012 @06:08PM (#40486641)

    Emergency is peace. As long as there is an emergency, there are no terrorist acts. If we stop the emergency, the terrorist acts will happen again. So, if we stop the emergency, there will be no peace.

    Of course, every one of those statements is wrong. The opposite statements are the truth. Hard to spot too. In fact, it's getting easier to doublespeak now than it was in the past. Orwell was ridiculously ahead of his time.

  • by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @08:08PM (#40488051)

    I would apply the same process to this Train trip as I do to Airplane travel. How much time does it ACTUALLY cost, once you include (1) driving to the port/station (2) waiting upto 1 hour for your ride to arrive (3) the actual trip (4) waiting for your luggage at the conveyor belt (5) finding and paying-for a rental car on the opposite end (6) driving to your hotel.

    I think this is why many Americans don't want rail - they think it's just a slower airplane.

    What's not obvious is that rail is (often) closer to where you want to go. As an example, when I was in Tokyo and took the Shinkansen (high speed train) to a neighboring city, we left the hotel about 30 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, took the subway to the Shinkansen station, bought tickets, walked aboard with our luggage, left our wheeled bag at the end of the car, then 10 minutes later, the train left. When we got to our destination 2 hours later, we just grabbed our bag on the way out the door, and a 10 minute walk later we were at our hotel in the center of the city. Flying would have taken at least an hour longer, cost more, and would have been less convenient since we would have had to plan ahead and bought our tickets ahead of time so we would have missed out on the chance to spend the morning with a friend from the 'states that we unexpectedly ran into the night before. With the Shinkansen we knew that even if the train we wanted to take was full, there was another one 45 minutes later (and several non high speed train options to choose from). Trains don't often run at 110% capacity like airlines do - they don't have to overbook to break even.

    The HSR between SF and LA is supposed to take around 2:30 in travel time. Add 15 minutes to get to the train in SF and 15 minutes to get from the train station in LA to where ever you're going, so that's 3 hours.

    To fly, you'd leave for the SFO airport at least an hour before the flight (travel time is around 30 minutes with normal traffic), spend 1:15 in the air, and then you've got at least 45 minutes to pick up luggage and travel from LAX to Union Station, so that's 3 hours.

    Plus in the train, you have more comfortable seating, Wifi (many planes have that now too) and better meals with real silverware.

    Granted, if you're not going from city center to city center, travel times could be higher by train, but if the majority of travelers are going to/from the city centers, those people will find the train to be more convenient. And getting to the city center from other areas is also convenient. I don't know about LA, but in the Bay Area, if you live in Marin, you can choose to take a bus or ferry to downtown SF to catch the train. Or from the East Bay you can take BART or Bus or Ferry. Or if you're on the Peninsula, you can go to the SFO or Palo Alto HSR station directly, no need to go to downtown SF.

  • Re:Aliens (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @08:58PM (#40488601)

    Well, they've been crying wolf for quite some time now. Can't wait to see what slips through the net due to their negligence / power schemes; smart money would say it will be something new.

    My money, smart or not, says nothing will slip through for the same reason nothing has slipped through since 911 -- there is nothing.

    The way they crow whenever they "catch" some numbnut who can barely put one foot in front of another you would expect massive coverage of an actual terrorist being thwarted. But there hasn't been even one. Anybody even remotely dangerous - shoe/underware bombers - never hits domestic security anyway, always boarding the plane overseas.

  • by reboot246 ( 623534 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @09:28PM (#40488921) Homepage
    Methinks the "terrorists" are smarter than the DHS. Who would board a train to blow it up when it can be done much safer from a distance? Thousands of miles of unguarded track and hundreds of unguarded bridges make easy targets. Buses can be targets of roadside bombs.

    No, the "terrorists" aren't the dumb ones. The American public wins that award. Watch for a false flag operation coming to a neighborhood near you.
  • Re:Not surprising (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Zero__Kelvin ( 151819 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:03PM (#40489199) Homepage
    Be that as it may, you didn't call a press conference and announce the success of your door locks in thwarting a break-in today, right? Because that would be the difference.
  • by NicBenjamin ( 2124018 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @10:59PM (#40489605)

    Your probably right about the tie if we did the rail system I mentioned. But I'd still have a major advantage because audio books are not cheap. If your boss is still paying you mileage and the mileage is actually cheaper then gas and wear on your vehicle; you probably come out ahead. But for a vacation I win hands down.

    But if they did a system like the French made in the 70s my trip velocity would be more then 170 MPH. That's trip velocity, so in in five hours I've gone 850 miles, counting stops. It'll take you 9 hours to catch me, assuming your gas tank doesn't need re-filling and you don't get hungry.

    There's a reason liberals read a Conservative say: "But with our low population densities trains are inefficient," and simply walk away. Montana needs 170 MPH transportation a hell of a lot more then NYC does.

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