Balancing Security and Convenience

By Matthew L. Wald ’76 / March / April 2007
March 23rd, 2007

Usually if your college roommate appropriates your toothpaste, it’s while you’re still sharing a room. Thirty years after graduation, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Kip Hawley confiscated Steve Zaleznick’s tube at an airport just outside Washington, D.C. Well, not Hawley himself, but security personnel under his direction. As the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Hawley had banned liquids and gels from passengers’ carry-on luggage, and Zaleznick was one of the thousands of travelers caught with contraband. Zaleznick, who’d roomed with Hawley for three years at Brown, said he didn’t complain. “I feel modestly safer,” he says, “knowing Kip’s in charge whenever I fly.”

In fact, as the government official in charge of new, confusing airport security rules, Hawley is not universally held in high esteem. Last September a Wisconsin man wrote in black marker on the one-quart zip-top bag in his carry-on, “Kip Hawley is an idiot.’’ Security officers in Milwaukee detained him for twenty-five minutes until they determined his opinion of Hawley did not constitute a threat. T-shirts with that slogan are now available on the Internet.

Hawley’s job has tough criteria for success. If no planes are hijacked or bombed on his watch, he may be judged to have done well. But each inconvenience for travelers risks earning him public enmity. Hawley says that at parties he can’t let on what he does without getting an earful. “You can’t get away from it; I get it from my mother,’’ he says. (She wanted to know how many three-ounce containers she could bring on board.) But Hawley is philosophical about the flak he takes. For years, when he met airline pilots he would tell them about his bad flight experiences, so he figures it’s his turn now to hear complaints. “There’s not a lot of fun in this job,’’ he said. “It is very intense, and rightly so.’’

He has faced a slew of thorny issues and made progress on some. A watered-down Registered Traveler program, which slightly expedites trips through security for people who agree to background checks, began, belatedly, last fall. The TSA has been working for years on a program called Secure Flight, which is supposed to reduce the number of times an innocent traveler is stopped because his or her name resembles one on the terrorism watch list, or the number of times airlines have to make a U-turn in flight because the former Cat Stevens or someone similar is aboard. (The program remains mired in administrative and privacy problems.) Lately Hawley has been loosening some requirements, such as the one banning all scissors from carry-on bags—which has brought a new wave of criticism, this time from the flight attendants’ unions.

The TSA job is Hawley’s fifth go-round in Washington; his first was on the staff of U.S. Senator John Chafee, whom Hawley met when he was the manager of WBRU. After earning a law degree at the University of Virginia, Hawley worked in the Reagan White House and the transportation department, then became chief executive officer of Arzoon Inc., a firm selling supply-chain software. On September 11, 2001, his boss at Arzoon, an immigrant from Iran, was in New York City with some of his staff for a business presentation, and was marooned there. “It was a very poignant thing trying to get back to California, from his perspective,” Hawley said. “It was an interesting counterpoint to the strong emotion that I and everybody else felt after 9/11, to see from his point of view.” Feeling the weight of public suspicion on people of Middle Eastern origin, his boss eventually resorted to renting an RV and drove home across country with other staff members.

Hawley’s response was to volunteer to help fix the airport security problem, and he came back to Washington in October 2001 to help set up the newly created TSA. He and his wife, Janet, live on the Monterey Peninsula in California. The oldest of their two boys applied to Brown but was waitlisted. “I’ve gotten mellow on that,’’ Hawley says. “It’s about the match.’’

And despite being famous enough to see his name on unflattering T-shirts, Hawley is hopeful that this is his fifteen minutes, and not a permanent condition. “I hope to come and go with as low a profile as possible,’’ he says.

—Matthew L. Wald ’76

Matthew Wald reports on transportation for the New York Times.

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March / April 2007