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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 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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  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @05:18PM (#40485995) Homepage Journal

    He was once my boss and I thought he was a pretty level-headed guy with a pretty good vision. Perhaps it's this politics and government stuff which makes him look like a fish out of water.

  • by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Thursday June 28, 2012 @05:56PM (#40486487)

    Perhaps for the same reason known Soviet spies were not arrested; they're easier to watch.

    But this is about when they leave the country.

    Even if everything else is correct (and I find it difficult to believe that Al Qaeda has that many operatives who could fit into US society) what difference does it make when they are leaving the country?

    Why not arrest them on the way out?

  • by cpu6502 ( 1960974 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @05:56PM (#40486489)

    They don't need a bill. The TSA has already been patting-down and inspecting luggage at train stations. Also bus depots. And at the post office, unemployment center, mall, and during the recent Chicago summit (including yanking people out of cars so they could prform illegal warrantless searches). The SS seems to have time-traveled from the 1940s to the present day America.

  • by cpu6502 ( 1960974 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @06:06PM (#40486617)

    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.

    Two years ago I did a lot of travel between Oklahoma City and Minneapolis, and I discovered that my coworkers who flew took almost as long as I did in my car. (10 versus 11 hours). I suspect this high-speed rail would have a similar result.

    So I continued driving. And pocketed the ~$1000 I was paid for mileage. Basic Rule of Thumb: I will drive to my destination unless the trip is longer than one day.

  • by NicBenjamin ( 2124018 ) on Thursday June 28, 2012 @06:52PM (#40487219)

    Trains are a lot more convenient then aircraft. There's security theatre, but there's less of it. You typically don't have to show up an hour before your train leaves. Rail stations are also usually located in fairly densely populated areas, rather then way out in the boonies. It's actually practical to show up 15 minutes before the train leaves. You still have to park somewhere, but since rail stations also tend to be on mass transit lines you can generally park anywhere in the City (including right in front of your own personal house), leave an hour before your train leaves, and still make it.

    And then for the next ten hours you can play on your computer, read a book, bone up on the info you'll need for your business meeting, etc. instead of trying to navigate traffic yourself. And there's none of that "turn off your personal electronic devices for a half-hour before take-off and landing" BS.

    The problem in the US is that train routes just don't exist. To get from Cleveland to Detroit by train, for example, you have to a) go through Chicago (which is two states out of the way) or b) go through Canada. The most sensible route (via Toledo) just isn't there. I did an experiment to see how quickly you could get to OKC from Minneapolis and Amtrak's website was unable to tell me. Apparently you have to go through Arkansas and Texas because the only passenger line into Oklahoma is Fort Worth-OKC.

    If the feds were willing to put some money into passenger rail, so that you could actually make these trips, and incidentally upgrade the main rail lines so the trains could go 80, it would be a really good thing for the country. We'd use less oil, be less vulnerable to terrorism, and we'd have more travel options. But that ain't happening anytime soon.

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