Leveraging DHS Assets: Potential for the Transportation Security Administration to Enhance U.S. Government Intelligence Capabilities

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Zachary Ziegler


After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (9/11), the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and law enforcement (LE) agencies were re-structured to respond to the types of attacks encountered at that time. The changes occurred from a reactionary posture and were deemed necessary to ensure the safety of America moving forward.[1] However, the last 20 years has seen an increase in domestic terrorism, transnational organized criminal (TOC) activity, and espionage from bad actors resident in the homeland. This increase in activity has caused the U.S. IC and LE agencies to plan, budget, and reorganize their organizations to tackle these threats more effectively.

Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), refinement has resulted in multiple systems collecting vast amounts of information and analyzing the data, in part, for vetting and watchlisting purposes. This refinement also included the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA is ideally positioned to access valuable data, which can be of further use in the U.S. fight to counter threats to the homeland. This thesis argues that the TSA needs to enhance information sharing with U.S. government organizations through enhanced intelligence capabilities. The opportunity cost in failing to improve the TSA’s intelligence collection is an overall loss of intelligence that can be usefully applied by multiple U.S. IC and LE agencies against the diverse threats America is currently facing.

To demonstrate the need for modernizing the TSA’s intelligence functions, this thesis explores the unclassified literature on the threats facing America today and the IC’s responsibilities since 9/11, as well as the TSA’s support to intelligence. The TSA was created to secure the nation’s public transportation sector, albeit with a focus on the screening of airline passengers. Almost two decades later, some still espouse overseas terrorism as the number one threat, such as former National Security Advisor John R. Bolton (2018–2019) who proclaims “radical Islamist militants” are the highest threat facing America today.[2]

On the flip side, the research shows that the United States is no longer concerned with solely countering threats from overseas terrorist organizations akin to al-Qaeda and ISIS. In fact, Michael C. McGarrity, former Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterterrorism Division (2018–2019), noted, “there have been more arrests and deaths caused by domestic terrorists than international terrorists in recent years.”[3] Further, the 2019 United States National Intelligence Strategy puts a significant precedence on traditional state actors, such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

While overseas terrorism, domestic terrorism, and traditional threat actors are high priority targets for the U.S. government, the threat from TOCs poses just as much risk. A recent report by RAND presents the emergent threat of TOC actors as a “hybrid” that “combines aspects of criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and insurgencies,” and believes TOCs “pose crosscutting threats to U.S. security interest.”[4] Over the last seven years, according to the TSA’s Insider Threat Roadmap, the TSA has encountered several incidents involving TOC actors, such as a 2018 event that busted several airline workers for smuggling illegal drugs, for a TOC group, onto departing aircraft.[5]

Along with the TOC and insider threat, the TSA is concerned that “terrorists could exploit the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by the transnational criminal organizations” to recruit credentialed TSA insiders.[6] Defeating these shifting threats requires the TSA to transform just as the IC and the members within the IC have changed to confront the existing threats to the United States.[7]

For the TSA to support the IC’s efforts, by enhancing the TSA’s intelligence functions, fundamental changes need to be made within the organization. The TSA is aware change should occur.[8] However, current scholarship reveals that opinions are varied on the how the TSA should be employed. Former U.S. Representative John Mica (R-Fla) (1993–2017) stated that he would like to see the TSA hand over the screening business to private security companies and focus “on intelligence to identify and address threats.”[9] Other research believes the TSA has gone too far in its intelligence activity to include the DHS Office of Inspector General findings on the Federal Air Marshal Service Quiet Skies program stating the “TSA did not properly plan, implement, and manage the Quiet Skies program to meet the program’s mission of mitigating the threat to commercial aviation posed by higher risk passengers.”[10] In light of the research, the TSA can transform itself, as some members of the IC have done, so that the TSA can better position itself for the future and provide enhanced intelligence capabilities to the U.S. government.

While the TSA is not a statutory member of the IC, the TSA is a member of the DHS intelligence enterprise (IE), and as such, supports the U.S. intelligence activities. This thesis found that the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis’s (DHS I&A) statutory IC membership provided a pathway for the TSA to provide enhanced intelligence collection to contribute to improved IC analysis of potential threats to the United States’ national security. Just as the DHS was established to be “a concerted national effort to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage and recover from attacks that do occur,” the TSA was established to act as a deterrent to future attacks through its operational and analytic activities.[11] The research identified the TSA’s current intelligence structure and legal authorities in which it could operate. This thesis has laid out the legal framework to support any future intelligence enhancements.

Indeed, the existing laws and directives already address the issue of whether the U.S. government, specifically the IC, can legally support expanding the TSA’s intelligence functions to answer national intelligence priority requirements.[12] These laws include the National Security Act of 1947 that clearly defines the components of the IC that include the DHS I&A. The DHS I&A oversees the DHS IE, of which the TSA is a member. Additionally, this thesis identified that Executive Order 12333 stipulated that to acquire insight on any threats toward the United States, the intelligence needed to be of the highest quality and been obtained through appropriate and legal means. The responsibility to analyze and disseminate intelligence falls on each department and agency within the IC.[13] Further stating that in coordination with relevant organizational leaders, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) can seek the support of non-IC organizations to engage in the collection and analysis of intelligence pertinent to national security.[14]

This thesis found that the TSA was required to provide the DNI with the highest quality intelligence. Further, the research found that the Intelligence Community Directive—900 and Intelligence Community Directive—204 laid out the responsibility of the National Intelligence Manager of Aviation (NIM-A) to provide the DNI with all intelligence related to aviation. The NIM-A was also required to advise the DNI on the creation of national intelligence priorities, to include intelligence needs and intelligence gaps, as well as ad-hoc priorities for emergent intelligence needs, respectively.[15] The research found that these authorities allowed the TSA to participate in additional intelligence activities usually associated with statutory IC members. Through the NIM-A, the TSA could begin to establish national intelligence priorities that not only answered intelligence gaps in the U.S. transportation sector but also supported the larger IC requirements.

This research suggests that today’s threats are more encompassing than foreign terrorist organizations, and that the TSA must evolve to respond to the emerging threats on the aviation ecosystem and the entire U.S. transportation sector. Further, this thesis found that the TSA was already providing occasional valuable intelligence to the IC and LE communities. The TSA nevertheless can provide more value to the IC through advanced intelligence collection, dissemination of raw intelligence, as well as preparing strategic analytic products. Finally, this thesis found that existing legislation would allow the TSA to participate legally in additional intelligence gathering activities in support of the U.S. IC.

The first recommendation is for the IC to develop specific transportation intelligence requirements that are unique to the TSA. With the creation and inclusion of transportation intelligence requirements, the TSA can then provide a definitive roadmap for intelligence activities.[16] The second recommendation is to establish a collection management program at the TSA. Collection management is used to interpret intelligence requirements into tactical or strategic operational objectives and directs those collecting information and those analyzing the collected information.[17] The third recommendation is to modernize the TSA’s intelligence functions. No organization can function at the highest level or provide a superior product if it is not continually improved. Finally, the fourth recommendation is to develop a TSA overt strategic debriefing program. Such a program would be responsible for developing and executing overt Human Intelligence collection operations. These operations would include intelligence debriefings of overt sources, drafting raw intelligence reports, responding to customer requests for intelligence and collection management requirements, as well as maintaining detailed operational records.



[1] Robert S. Mueller, III, “The FBI Transformation since 2001,” 1, Federal Bureau of Investigation, September 14, 2006, https://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/the-fbi-transformation-since-2001.

[2] Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt, “Terrorist Threat ‘More Fluid and Complex than Ever,’ White House Says,” New York Times, sec. 1, United States, October 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/us/politics/trump-counterterrorism-strategy.html.

[3] Michael C. McGarrity and Calvin A. Shivers, “Confronting White Supremacy, Statement before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Washington, D.C.,” 1, Federal Bureau of Investigation, June 4, 2019, https://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/confronting-white-supremacy.

[4] Angel Rabasa et al., Counternetwork: Countering the Expansion of Transnational Criminal Networks (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017), XVI, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1400/RR1481/RAND_RR1481.pdf.

[5] David P. Pekoske, Insider Threat Roadmap 2020 (Washington, DC: Transportation Security Administration, 2020), 6, https://www.tsa.gov/sites/default/files/3597_layout_insider_threat_roadmap_0424.pdf.

[6] Pekoske, 6.

[7] James Burch, “The Domestic Intelligence Gap: Progress since 9/11?,” Homeland Security Affairs XVII, 1, April 1, 2008, https://www.hsaj.org/articles/129.

[8] Patricia F. S. Cogswell, “Protecting the Nation’s Transportation Systems: Oversight of the Transportation Security Administration,” Transportation Security Administration, 1, September 11, 2019, https://www.tsa.gov/news/press/testimony/2019/09/11/protecting-nations-transportation-systems-oversight-transportation.

[9] Andrew Becker, “Lawmaker Says TSA Should Focus on Intelligence, Get out of Screening,” National Security, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, para. 1, April 28, 2016, https://www.revealnews.org/blog/lawmaker-says-tsa-should-focus-on-intelligence-get-out-of-screening/.

[10] Joseph V. Cuffari, TSA Needs to Improve Management of the Quiet Skies Program (REDACTED) (Washington, DC: Office of the Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security, 2020), 2, https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2020-11/OIG-21-11-Nov20-Redacted.pdf.

[11] George W. Bush, National Strategy for Homeland Security (Washington, DC: White House, 2002), 2, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/nat-strat-hls-2002.pdf.

[12] These authorities are derived from the TSA’s current position within the DHS, as discussed in Chapter III, the Congressional mandates that established the TSA, and existing laws and directives in place that guide the IC’s common framework.

[13] Ronald Reagan, Executive Order 12333, “United States Intelligence Activities,” National Archives, 12, Part 3, General Provisions, December 4, 1981, https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/codification/executive-order/12333.html.

[14] Reagan.

[15] Director of National Intelligence, Intelligence Community Directive 900—Integrated Mission Management (Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2013), https://www.dni.gov/index.php/what-we-do/ic-related-menus/ic-related-links/intelligence-community-directives.

[16] Todd Rosenblum, “Homeland Intelligence: The Unique Community within the Community,” The Cipher Brief (blog), 1, October 9, 2016, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column_article/homeland-intelligence-the-unique-community-within-the-community.

[17] George J. Franz, “Beyond Desert Storm—Conducting Intelligence Collection Management Operations in the Heavy Division” (monograph, Fort Leavenworth, KS, School of Advance Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 1995), 8–13, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a309837.pdf.

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