Remarks at The Wilson Center

Administrator Peter Neffenger
Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
As Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon and thank you for being here today. I would especially like to thank Jane Harman and the Wilson Center for the invitation to share with you some thoughts on TSA – what we have done this past year and where we are headed. I first met then Congresswoman Jane Harman in 2003 when I was working on the security of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Jane is the best kind of friend – she listens to you, she thinks about what you have said, and then she challenges you to defend your ideas. 

I also want to acknowledge Judge William Webster, former FBI Director and former CIA Director, and who currently chairs Secretary Jeh Johnson’s Homeland Security Advisory Council. Thank you, Sir, for being here.

Every one of you has an image of TSA – a story about who and what we are. An idea of what we do, of how we do it, and perhaps, even, of whom we do it to. But I ask you to set aside your own stories for a bit and listen instead to the story we’ve been writing over the past year. 


In his book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg writes about when Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of Alcoa in 1987. O’Neill found a company in deep trouble. But in his first speech as CEO, he talked not about product lines, inventories, and falling profits, but about worker safety.

His words shocked the investment community. The word on Wall Street was to “sell!” One investor called his top clients and said, “The board put a crazy hippie in charge, and he's going to kill the company.” 

The rest of the story is well known. Focusing on worker safety had a ripple effect throughout Alcoa. It changed Alcoa’s entire culture, and led to a reexamination of manufacturing practices and a cascade of innovations. One year after that speech, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high.

Here’s what Paul O’Neill said:

"I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can't order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company."

Transforming TSA

When I came to TSA just over a year ago, I too found an organization in trouble and under intense scrutiny, and one that needed to change. We had to examine everything we were doing. 

We had to look at our habits, and understand how they had informed our approach to our security mission – we needed to understand what determined success at deterring, detecting and disrupting those who would attack our transportation systems.

We needed to think differently. And we had to disrupt habits. But where do you begin?

During my confirmation process, I met with quite a few TSA employees, focusing particularly on those uniformed TSA officers who work on the front lines in our airports. I asked them what they thought about working for TSA. I asked them what it meant to be a Transportation Security Officer. I asked what they thought I should do if I got the job.

I got some interesting and enlightening answers. One officer said that she felt more part of the airport than TSA. A number of officers said that they felt their job had become one of getting people through security lines as fast as possible – and they were worried about whether things were getting past them. 

Many advised me to simply let them do the job they were hired to do – to protect the traveling public – and to have their backs when they do. I found that they cared deeply about their work, their purpose and their identity. They wanted to be what they joined to be, highly professional security officials protecting the traveling public and our nation’s transportation system, but they often felt like baggage screeners there to make the lines move fast. And as we began digging into the root causes of the Inspector General’s findings, we kept returning to this fundamental notion of purpose and identity.

So, we began by collectively restating who and what we are – from top to bottom. We published

our Intent. We said out loud that we were security professionals working in an intelligence-driven, adaptable counterterrorism agency focused on the security of our nation’s transportation system. We retook the oath of office. 

As it turns out, changing the way you define yourself, changes everything. The habits around one thing affected our entire agency. In Paul O’Neill’s terms, the one thing we would focus on that would change everything was our identity.

That single but important change set in motion the ongoing transformation of TSA. It led to changing the way we think about, prepare for, and execute our complex mission in what is perhaps the most dynamic and challenging threat environment we have seen. 

Even as we have tackled the root causes of the Inspector General’s findings and, thus far, successfully addressed the headline-grabbing wait times in the face of record air travel passenger volume, we have kept our focus on who we are and how we need to transform to meet future threats.

If we were to be security professionals, then we had to pay attention to delivering security. 

The bulk of my professional career was spent in a mission-focused organization. I woke up every day thinking about the mission end of the organization – what do we have to do, why do we have to do it and how are we going to get it done?

With this in mind, our renewed commitment to our identity surfaced three very simple guiding principles. We would:

  • Focus on Mission
  • Invest in People
  • Commit to Excellence

To do that you need leadership, training, guidance, resources, and appropriate equipment.

Training is the foundation of mission success and a powerful tool in galvanizing and leading change. It provides consistency, develops a common culture, instills core values, improves morale, and it raises performance.

So we created a formal, professional training program. We began by retraining our entire workforce on mission essentials during August and September last year.

We followed that by establishing the first-ever full-time TSA Academy, at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, with the initial course offerings focused on training frontline Transportation Security Officers. This intensive, hands-on training focuses on consistency, culture, core values and performance.  

We focused on our leaders through TSA’s first executive leadership program, specifically tailored to the unique nature of the TSA mission. We changed the way we conduct our daily operations – asking our field leaders what they need rather than prescribing what to do. 

In fact, we have overhauled our approach to operations, to include the establishment of a National Command Center to closely track daily screening operations and shift resources as needed to get ahead of problems before they arise; and for the first time we are doing this through daily, direct, airport-by-airport collaboration with airlines, airports, the travel industry and other transportation system professionals.

TSA is an integral element of an effective and efficient system. That’s an incredibly important point. We cannot act in isolation. To succeed we really need to be fully integrated with our many partners – airlines, airports, industry, other federal agencies, state and local governments and, of course, Congress. This past year Congress was there for TSA as a real partner in understanding our needs and helping us get the resources we need:

  • We have fully integrated intelligence and analysis into our operational planning.
  • We are reforming acquisitions and human resource management.
  • In partnership with airlines and airports we have begun making improvements to checkpoints.

We have entered into public-private partnerships with a number of airlines to purchase and install new automated screening lanes to greatly improve checkpoint throughput, increase effectiveness and improve the passenger experience. 

And it is real improvement – you’ll see these new, automated lanes in many airports before the end of the year. These efforts are paying real dividends – in effectiveness, in efficiency and even in employee morale. So, focusing on identity really did change everything. 

Who We Are

And that’s important, because TSA is truly the retail face of government. Who we are matters to over 2 million travelers with whom we interact each day. And it is an intimate and often stressful interaction – for both traveler and TSA officer. We examine your things. We examine you. And sometimes we touch you physically. 

We do that because there are very real, persistent and evolving threats to transportation. Terrorist groups and individuals remain intently focused on doing us harm and they are creative, determined and adaptive. 


So what comes next? That’s the question I am most interested in answering. And it is a question that TSA cannot answer by itself.

Solving immediate, pressing issues about effectiveness and long lines has been critically important. Putting automated lanes into airports is a must do – and will make all our lives significantly less stressful as we travel over the next year.

But we can’t stop there. These measures alone do not transform the system. They do, however, give us the breathing room to move to an entirely new way of thinking about security.

Much has changed over the years – we have better, more fully integrated intelligence, our technology is more capable, our workforce is more professional and we understand risk better. 

But in the aviation environment in particular, we still talk of airport perimeters, public areas, checkpoints, sterile areas.  Most of the physical security takes place at the checkpoint, and the checkpoint by definition aggregates a lot of security elements in a fairly confined space. Remember, checkpoints were inserted into what used to be open airports.

But what if we were to re-envision the entire system as an integrated whole? From reservation to destination. More fully integrating information and activity among all the elements and players in the system – disaggregating and distributing security throughout the system – reducing friction to the traveler while at the same time increasing security effectiveness. 

We need to think and design less in terms of checkpoints and barriers and more in terms of a security environment in which there are many security partners.

We may never return to the levels of openness we enjoyed prior to the tragedy of 9/11. But, we can envision a future in which security is more seamless – more transparent even – eliminating some of the things that create friction for us all.

Recent world events – the detonation of explosives on aircraft above the Sinai and Mogadishu, the airport and metro bombings in Brussels and the recent attack at Istanbul airport illustrate the imperative to rethink the security environment. 

Perimeter barriers and checkpoints serve a purpose, but they have to be integrated into a much larger security environment.

TSA’s new Innovation Task Force is working on this. This task force is focused on what comes next. They are taking a fresh look at the entire system. They are working with public and private partners to provide a platform for government, industry and stakeholders to gather requirements for approaches to disrupt current practices and accelerate the development and deployment of new technologies and concepts of operation.

However, the real value of this task force is not only the security enhancements it will enable, but its unconventional approach is an example of how we are changing the way we think. That’s key for one simple reason, those who would harm us are as creative and resourceful as they are ruthless.

We’ve taken some important steps: the expansion of trusted traveler programs, the advances in automated lanes I mentioned and new and enhanced screening technologies. And, these pave the way for better biometric security such as iris and fingerprint scanners, and even facial recognition.

Such advances, for example, could lead to the complete elimination of boarding passes and document checks for those willing to opt into the system. This begins to create the potential for a very different security environment.

Indeed, we will need to answer important questions about privacy and civil liberties. But we need not sacrifice our rights in order to develop and implement effective security.

Like the many great agencies with whom we work, TSA must continuously evolve, adapt, invent and reaffirm its security mission. So in coming to a full understanding of TSA’s identity, we can better appreciate its need to evolve and transform. 

TSA has been charged with an enormous responsibility to protect our nation’s transportation systems, but we’ve learned that it is a shared responsibility and that the more we share responsibility the better the results.

Congress, airlines, airports, industry, federal, state and local governments, law enforcement – everyone has an important role to play.

So, to our partners and stakeholders in and out of government, I ask that you engage with TSA – aggressively – to challenge conventional thinking about the security environment to address the ever-changing and evolving threat. 

So, that’s who we are. That’s what we’re striving for. That’s what some 60,000 TSA professionals have taken an oath to do.

Thanks again for being here today, I look forward to our discussion.