TSA Critics, Here's Hope

07/20/2011 05:27 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2011

As head of TSA, you don't get to choose your battles. Last Thanksgiving, Administrator John Pistole was handed the hot potato of intelligence briefings about al Qaeda suicide bombers trying to penetrate the aviation system with non-metallic bombs hidden on the body. That, coupled with the fact that TSA has vulnerabilities against that kind of attack, put him in a briefing room packed with people where he had to decide among unsavory options. Although I disagree with his decision to pick the ultra-intrusive pat-down, I do understand how he was boxed in when making that call. It is extraordinarily difficult to sign off on anything other than the most stringent option when presented with the intersection of clear threat and vulnerability. On that decision and a litany of issues, TSA has been on the defensive month after month. Deserved or not, it is hard to pursue a reform agenda when you are taking body blows.

Yesterday, John Pistole finally got to do something on his agenda. TSA announced a test of a new pilot program to test more sophisticated screening of passengers based on voluntarily provided information already inside DHS, but heretofore not accessible at airport checkpoints. This is a big deal for several reasons.

First, Pistole's idea to integrate risk screening already done by sister DHS agency Customs & Border Protection is right on. CBP has information that they use for determining low-risk passengers on international arrivals, in some cases, including personal interviews. Working that information into the TSA screening process makes sense. Maybe security clearances are next as TSA continues to include more intelligence and risk-based information in its checkpoint process.

Second, it appears that this is a privacy-friendly solution. Rather than a tempting fishing expedition into the murky waters of commercial data with known and hidden privacy perils as well as dubious validity, Pistole appears to be sticking to the solid ground of already privacy-validated programs. The proof is in the details, but the proposal announced yesterday is a promising start.

Third, and perhaps most important, TSA is breaking through the 'rummage for potentially dangerous objects' straightjacket that is the core of the agency's trouble with the public. TSA is like any organization; there are internal splits over policy. Some -- including, I believe, John Pistole and many of the front-line officers -- want more thinking and less rote implementation of a checklist.

So TSA critics, seize this moment and give Pistole a hand. These are tentative steps along the road to smart security and they should be encouraged. Anybody can bludgeon the many shortcomings and foibles at TSA, and there will be plenty more opportunities in the future. But now is the time to give some positive reinforcement to a sensible attempt at innovation.