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Erroll Southers on privacy, TSA's future and unions

By Ed O'Keefe

President Obama's nominee to serve as head of the Transportation Security Administration says he supports the continued use of whole-body imaging machines as a secondary source of security and says passengers should have the right to request a different form of screening.

Erroll Southers provided that statement amid 33 pages of answers to 55 questions from the Senate Homeland Security committee that approved his nomination in November. Questions on the form range from what Southers considers the biggest challenges facing TSA and what he would do about collective bargaining rights.

Southers's answer to questions about the whole body imaging machines is consistent with current TSA policy. The agency is quickly distributing the machines to the nation's busiest airports, amid growing privacy concerns.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) repeated his opposition to the Southers nomination on Monday, stressing once again that he's concerned the nominee would allow TSA employees to have collective bargaining rights -- a big no-no for most Republicans opposed to labor unions. DeMint also accused Democrats of trying to confirm Southers without proper Senate debate.

Despite DeMint's hold on Southers, eventual Senate confirmation appears certain, despite Washington Post reports that he gave Congress misleading information about incidents in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he will call for a vote when the Senate returns in late January. White House aides defended Southers on the Sunday talks shows.

Below you can review some of Southers's written answers to lengthy questions from members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The comments section awaits your thoughts after you read through selected questions and answers below.


Question: In your view, what are the most significant challenges facing the department in its efforts to secure the nation's aviation system?

Answer from Southers: I have had the opportunity to visit and review the protective measures with my colleagues at several airports considered to be prime targets, including: Ben Gurion in Israel, considered to be one of the world's most secure; Heathrow in Great Britain, the world's busiest airport; and Beijing International in China, which recently opened the world's largest terminal and hosted the 2008 Olympic Games. We all agree on three basic realities -- reducing the risk of terrorism and public safety is paramount, emergency response efficiency is critical, and we must ensure the continuity of operations in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Is there a need to reassess TSA's layers of aviation security, and, if so, how would you propose doing so?

The dynamic aspect of terrorism requires the implementation of regular assessments and the identification of evolutionary and interdisciplinary countermeasures. In my experience as Deputy Director in the California Governor's Office of Homeland Security, the assessments we undertook proved very helpful in maintaining an effective and flexible security network.

In early 2009, TSA began assuming responsibility for checking airline passengers against watchlists when it began implementation of the Secure Flight Program. Though the program began with TSA checking just a few flights a day, TSA has been gradually expanding the program throughout the year, and will continue to do so throughout 2010. If confirmed what will you do to ensure TSA continues the smooth implementation of Secure Flight?

It is my understanding that TSA is well positioned to complete implementation of the Secure Flight program. TSA is working with the air carriers to implement Secure Flight in phases, with each airline incorporation the necessary changes into their systems. The key to success for this program is collaboration; if confirmed, I will continue to work with the airlines and other stakeholders to achieve timely implementation.

TSA has been piloting the use of Whole Body Imaging (WBI) equipment at aviation checkpoints, to improve the agency's ability to detect both metallic and non-metallic threats. Some privacy advocates have expressed concerns about the privacy implications of using such equipment, leading TSA and the equipment manufacturers to adopt a number of safeguards to protect a traveler's privacy.

Do you support the use of WBI equipment, provided current safeguards remain in place? What experience to do you have with this equipment?

Answer: I believe the effort to provide effective aviation security requires a balance between technology, privacy, and security. It is my understanding that TSA's current protocol includes a number of privacy protections, and that the images that are displayed use the most advanced privacy filters currently available.

I support TSA's long-term goal to advance the technology so the human image appears as a stick-figure while still displaying anomalies. It is my understanding that TSA is actively working with vendors to achieve this capability. If confirmed, I will work to ensure the privacy of the traveling public is protected while providing the necessary security to protect them.

Do you support TSA's recent proposal to utilize WBI equipment in primary screening?

Answer: If confirmed, I will ensure that passengers may request alternative screening procedures -- as is TSA's current policy. If a passenger opts to not use imaging technology, they will receive equivalent, alternate screening.

Do you believe TSA has a sufficient process in place to regularly review the privacy implications of this equipment, or any other screening technologies which may affect a traveler's privacy? What safeguards do you believe are necessary, at a minimum?

The most importance (sic) balance that we face with this equipment is between security, privacy and civil liberties. In my experience at the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, we found it very effective in dealing with similar privacy concerns to reach out to stakeholders, travelers, and specific religious groups. These partnerships are vital as we move forward to ensure that we have the best balance in privacy and security possible.

What do you believe are TSA's top intelligence priorities today, and how can TSA improve its efforts to address them?

Because transportation security is a global enterprise, TSA must have access to timely intelligence reporting on existing and evolving terrorist threats around the world that could impact our transportation systems. If confirmed, I will make it a priority for TSA to analyze all available information on terrorist tactics, techniques and procedures to help the agency take actions, such as defining detection standards for technology development, maximizing resource allocation, and develop/expand relationships with foreign partners to enhance security at last-points-of-departure overseas.

I believe TSA can improve its efforts to address its top intelligence priorities by continuing to work closely with DHS Intelligence and Analysis and working collaboratively with Intelligence Community organizations to develop trusted relationships and share information.

As Assistant Secretary, how will you balance the interests of both labor and management, while improving the overall state of labor-management relations within TSA?

If confirmed, I will undertake a thorough assessment of all of TSA's operational and organizational issues. My 30 years as a law enforcement officer have taught me that the missions comes first. I will focus on protecting the nation's transportation systems, while maximizing the talents and abilities of the workforce in a collaborative and respectful way.

The human resource system applicable to Transportation Security Officers (TSOs), who perform security screening at airports for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), does not allow collective bargaining, but does include certain employee rights and protections, similar but not identical to those generally available to federal employees. TSA also has established a pay-for-performance system to TSOs. If confirmed, will you reconsider TSA's current workforce system and, in so doing, what criteria will you apply?

If confirmed, I would need the opportunity to assess operational and organizational issues as well as to talk with stakeholder groups and former TSA administrators before making any recommendation to the Secretary.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 4, 2010; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  Confirmation Hearings, Revolving Door  
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"The most importance (sic) balance that we face with this equipment is between security, privacy and civil liberties."

This kind of typo on a resume would get the application thrown away.

I look forward to a TSA run by Mr. Errol "Details are very Importance" Southers.

Posted by: web_user | January 4, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I want to travel safely and quickly without waiting for every Grandma ahead of me to undress so she can be screened. The TSA can screen employees so those who'd get their jollies looking at overweight Americans on a screen aren't hired!

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 4, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

So DeMint wants to make sure TSA employees cannot unionize, why? Oh yes of coarse, so the TSA will not pay middle class wages.

DeMint will be running for re-election in 2010 on a anti-affordable health care, anti middle class (disguised as anti-union) platform.

Good luck, we'll see just how bright South Carolinian's are.

Posted by: knjincvc | January 4, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

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