The book is partly a memoir of Hawley's involvement with TSA, which predates his appointment as its administrator. Hawley helped architect the TSA shortly after it was first authorized. He left government service once that was finished, but came back again in 2005, appointed by President George W. Bush to become TSA's third administrator in four years. He stuck with the job until the exact moment Barack Obama was sworn in as President in January of 2009. If you're looking for insight into TSA's most controversial policies, the extensive use of body scanning and pat down searches, you won't find that in this book. Those policies were put in place by Hawley's successor almost two years later. The phrase 'body scan' is used exactly once.
The book breaks from the memoir style at times and changes to that of an action-suspense thriller. It is interwoven with segments of prose similar to a Tom Clancy novel. In these segments we learn about the life, and possibly the ultimate death, of an Al Qaeda operative who goes by multiple names throughout the course of the book. Raised in Austria, we follow the terrorist through training with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and his connection with various airline-related terrorist plots against the United States. Under Administrator Hawley, TSA uses all its intelligence resources to track his moves and act to thwart the terrorist's nefarious schemes.
The Clancyesque sections are a severe weakness of the book, bordering on laughable at times. For example, there's a description of a Casio watch that reminded me of a Dave Barry parody of Tom Clancy. The action-suspense writing style also tends to over-dramatize and exaggerate TSA's actual accomplishments. The intelligence sources TSA uses all belong to conventional intelligence agencies, both US and foreign. The event leading to the most dramatic moments of the book, the disruption of a liquid bomb plot, was the work of British intelligence and law enforcement in the UK. The authors describe in great, suspenseful detail that while the British are rounding up actual Al Qaeda cell members, TSA in the US is waging war against an entire phase of matter, one that covers about 70% of Earth's surface. Thanks to their determined efforts, TSA was able to ban liquids from carry on luggage literally overnight. However, in this and all other terrorist plots covered in this book, the authors never offer any evidence that TSA's use of its borrowed intelligence ever allowed TSA to disrupt any specific, credible, and imminent threat. So, if you like the idea of a Tom Clancy book where the Jack Ryan character agonizes over intel a lot but never actually does anything of provable value with it, this may be the book for you.
Although the writing style was problematic at times, it didn't totally undermine the value of the book. It helped me understand why mainstream media is so accepting of TSA. During Hawley's tenure, TSA made strong, successful efforts to woo the press, including interviews with CBS' 60 Minutes and appearances on Oprah. The good relationship established during Hawley's administration apparently continues to this day, despite the dramatic changes in operations imposed by his successor. The book also gives an amusing mini-bio of TSA's 'Blogger Bob' Burns, who has been called 'the Tokyo Rose of the modern age' for his defenses of TSA under John Pistole.
I've often wondered why TSA seems so unresponsive to the American public, and this book offered me a plausible explanation. Hawley seems to view TSA almost exclusively as a weapon in the US war against Al Qaeda. When TSA implements policies that seem crazy or ineffective to the rest of us, it doesn't use outside opinions to judge the effectiveness of its policies. Instead it uses information gathered from the intelligence community unavailable to outsiders. A policy change is considered effective if Al Qaeda reacts in a desirable way. For example, if a TSA operation deploys VIPR teams at public transportation centers and suspected Al Qaeda operatives leave the US afterwards, the operation is considered successful.
This book also helped me better understand Hawley's recent press comments. It sounds as if Hawley is saying that TSA's most controversial policies can be terminated if intelligence shows Al Qaeda to be on the decline. Now that he is outside TSA, Hawley seems to see what the American public does, and sees a reason to change security. If intelligence shows an increase of Al Qaeda activity, security can be raised again as needed.
This understanding of how TSA works is also confusing. What we're actually seeing from TSA is an expansion of their activities in recent years, with no meaningful or significant easing of its invasive passenger screening being proposed. Could that mean Al Qaeda is actually on the rise in some way not obvious to the general public? If not, Hawley's successor is a real bungler, and I would expect Hawley to call him that when given a chance. Instead, Hawley specifically refuses to second guess his successor at the end of his book, leaving me puzzled about how the US war against Al Qaeda is actually going.
Permanent Emergency is an interesting book. It certainly has flaws. The writing style is inconsistent and often unsatisfying. It is not entirely factually correct in many of its stories; TSA classifies a lot of information, and the authors admit to changing or concealing details for that and other reasons. The book does not attempt to tackle the most controversial aspects of today's TSA policies. Still, the book gives insight into how TSA was formed, what problems it was designed to address, and how it operates. TSA is so new, there are few sources of this type to examine right now, so any firsthand account is useful. I recommend this book to anyone concerned by TSA's operations, as it helps us understand how TSA became what it is now."
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