Photo: DHS and TSA work with Amtrak and law enforcement partners to keep the passenger rail system safe (Source: Barry Bahler, 3 September 2015).

Transportation Security in a Holistic Homeland Security Enterprise

Transportation security is the act of ensuring the protection and continued functioning of mobility systems for both people and commerce. It includes air, maritime, and all forms of surface transport. Transportation security is an enormous undertaking involving all government levels, the private sector, volunteer organizations, and the public. These organizations must work together to identify, prepare for, and respond to any threats or hazards that could affect the transportation infrastructure or the people and goods that travel within it.

In the United States, transportation security is a neverending and constantly evolving mission. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) outlines the transportation security strategy of the United States in its 2020 Biennial National Strategy for Transportation Security Report. In the that report, DHS outlined four overarching guiding principles to develop and implement the strategy.

The first principle was to maintain an agile and adaptable security posture. The agency sought to accomplish this by relying on intelligence analysis and through the completion of regular risk assessments. The goal is to move into a prevention mindset rather than maintaining a reactionary posture.

The second principle was to highlight the importance of partnerships. Since much of the transportation infrastructure is maintained and operated by private companies, DHS recognizes the need to work in unison with the entire community to increase transportation security.

The third principle is to ensure privacy and civil rights are protected and maintained as transportation security is improved. Government agencies must not overstep their authority or violate the freedoms of citizens within the country while attempting to improve safety.

Key transportation security goals include building awareness of and managing risks, enhancing resilience, safeguarding privacy and civil rights.

The fourth principle stated in the report was accountability. The agency recognizes that DHS, its private partners, along with local and state law enforcement organizations, are all accountable to the public. The organization acknowledges that it is the government’s responsibility to maintain open communication with all interested parties and report on project progress.

Transportation Security Goals

Based on the above principles, the 2020 Biennial Report outlined the following three specific goals of the strategy:

  • Manage risks to transportation systems from terrorist attacks and enhance system resilience.
  • Enhance effective domain awareness of transportation systems and threats.
  • Safeguard privacy, civil rights, civil liberties, and the freedom of movement of people and commerce.

DHS used these goals to develop security plans for the aviation, intermodal, maritime, and surface transportation sectors. The security plans for each industry are included as appendixes within the 2020 Biennial Report. Further, the report outlines a path forward through six areas of opportunity:

  • Increase risk-based assessments, which form the basis for all future planning and response operations.
  • More effectively share information among partner organizations and continually develop more efficient and effective intelligence platforms and products.
  • Increase and more effectively utilize security exercises. Exercises are the best way to train and prepare for any threats identified during a risk assessment.
  • Create a better understanding of supply chain resilience.
  • Create a better understanding of cyber system vulnerabilities.
  • More effectively use research and development initiatives to improve security and drive technological investments.

Successful execution of a transportation security strategy within such a large country involves the cooperation and coordination between many partners at the local, state, and federal level. Two lead agencies in this effort are the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Both organizations are components of the Department of Homeland Security. TSA and CBP must collaborate with all transportation stakeholders in the aviation, mass transit, highway transportation, railway, pipeline transportation, intelligence, and law enforcement sectors to ensure the security of the people and cargo that utilize the transportation infrastructure of the United States.

Transportation Security Agency

Established following the 9/11 attacks, the mission of TSA is to “strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems while ensuring the freedom of movement for people and commerce.” The agency is tasked with screening 100% of cargo coming into and moving within the United States. Additionally, the organization scrutinizes every passenger attempting to board flights within, or headed to, the country. TSA conducts its mission through a multi-layered approach. The most visible of which are the checkpoints passengers pass through at airports. Beyond the public-facing actions of airport checkpoints, TSA also conducts intelligence gathering activities, random searches of planes and airport facilities with canines and other detection equipment, and passenger manifest screening. TSA personnel also work as federal air marshalls and flight deck officers. These individuals have the legal authority to enforce U.S. laws and defend aircraft from attempted takeover. Since TSA does not conduct passenger screening outside the United States, the agency does require all airports that are last points of departure to the United States to uphold stringent security standards.

Although the Transportation Security Agency is most commonly associated with the aviation sector, the agency also works to safeguard surface transportation. TSA uses its intelligence and analysis capabilities to assist partners with conducting risk assessments across mass transit and rail transportation systems. TSA also operates with various law enforcement partners to increase the security of railways. TSA is one of several agencies part of Operation RAILSAFE. The operation aims to plan and exercise incident response, counterterrorism, and other security capabilities through random inspections of passengers and baggage, explosive screening by both canines and detection equipment, and increased security patrols on trains, at rail stations, and along railway right-of-ways.

Customs and Border Protection

The CBP’s mission is to protect the American people by securing the country’s borders and ensuring the lawful movement of goods. Aside from the border patrol duties that the agency is most known for, CBP also is responsible for monitoring the vast amount of cargo arriving at land and seaports. According to CBP, each year, over 11 million containers arrive at the nation’s seaports, 11 million travel across land borders by truck, and 2.7 million travel by rail.

Much like TSA, CBP uses a multi-layered approach to ensure the safety of the American public. One of these layers is the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (CTPAT) program. Through this program, CBP partners with international supply chain stakeholders. The partners include foreign governments, importers, manufacturers, and others. When these organizations agree to partner with CBP, both parties work together to identify security gaps, share intelligence information, and implement measures to improve the safety of supply chains.

CBP has implemented another layer of protection through the Container Security Initiative (CSI). CSI was established in the months following the September 11 attacks in 2001. The program works to identify potentially dangerous containers originating outside the United States and intercept them on foreign soil before posing a threat to the country. CBP has a team of agents operating in foreign ports authorized to intercept and inspect suspected containers before they are loaded onto ships heading to the United States.

Strategy Improvement Recommendation

A previous Domestic Preparedness Journal article proposed a change to DHS that would result in a holistic homeland security enterprise. The change was recommended due to how the DHS was established and organized. Transportation security is one area where DHS’s haphazard establishment has resulted in a crossover of mission areas and a lack of continuity between organizations.

Part of that recommendation was to reorganize the entire Department of Homeland Security. The reorganization would resemble the structure of the Department of Defense (DOD), where each service has an Office of the Chief of Staff as the leadership center. To achieve this reorganization, DHS could restructure its many component agencies to fall under specific offices according to mission set and primary function.

As part of the proposed holistic homeland security enterprise, the TSA would fall under the “Chief of Border Security” office along with CBP. The change would simplify the mission set of the subordinate organizations and increase communication speed and simplicity. By bringing both of these agencies under the same leadership umbrella, all policy and strategies concerning transportation security would be directed to a single point rather than across multiple departments, agencies, and components of DHS.

The Solution – Restructure

Within the United States, the TSA and the CBP each play a prominent role in transportation security. They work together with other DHS components, state and local governments, and private sector partners to share intelligence, plan, and respond to threats on the nation’s transportation infrastructure. One difficulty these organizations face is the current organizational structure of DHS, which makes it difficult to share information. A solution to this problem lies in restructuring the DHS organizational chart to one more similar to the Department of Defense, with chiefs taking the lead of each mission set. If the United States wishes to continue to improve transportation security with a practical and evolving strategy, then a reorganization of DHS could be a critical step.

Daniel Rector

Daniel Rector is an emergency management professional with over 15 years of experience in homeland security and emergency management operations. He is a military veteran with 12 years of active-duty experience. He served as a damage control petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard and survey team chief on a National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team. He served as a contractor for military and private sector clients designing exercises and conducting training. He has extensive experience conducting threat identification, hazard analysis, training program development, and exercise design/evaluation. He is a graduate of training programs from the Defense Nuclear Weapons School, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the U.S. Army’s Chemical/Biological Weapons Center, and the Idaho National Laboratory. He completed the FEMA Homeland Security Exercise & Evaluation Program course and the Continuity of Operations Planning course and is enrolled in the FEMA Master Exercise Practitioner Program. He is a Certified Emergency Manager, licensed hazardous materials technician, confined space rescue technician I/II, and emergency medical technician. His awards for excellence include being the only National Guard soldier ever named the Distinguished Honor Graduate while simultaneously being nominated by his peers for the Leadership Award at the CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) Advanced Leaders Course.



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