April 24, 2012 -- The Transportation Security Administration has become a necessary inconvenience for most travelers as the list of prohibited items has increased and the lines for screenings continue to serpentine through many airport departure halls. But former TSA administrator Kip Hawley says the system is broken and it doesn't have to be this way.
Hawley, who ran the TSA from 2005 to 2009, insists that to do a better job of preventing terrorist attacks more TSA officers should roam the airport, asking questions and watching shady characters, instead of screening passengers at checkpoints. He says the frustrating security checkpoints that alienate passengers and do little to stop Al Qaeda need to be streamlined.
"We cannot protect every passenger on every plane, train and automobile," Hawley told ABC News. "We have so jammed up the system with rules, and the public is just fed-up."
Hawley recommends that airlines stop charging extra to check bags because it encourages more carry-ons and advocates that the TSA no longer look for weapons that cannot penetrate the cockpit door.
"Blades, sharp objects, tools, all those things should be removed from the prohibited items list," Hawley told ABC News. "Carry a big knife, carry five knives. What are you going to do with a knife or five knives? You are not going to take over the plane. ... The focus should be explosives and toxins -- things that can kill a lot of people very fast before security measures can stop someone from making that attack."
He argues that since 9/11 objects that cannot kill a lot of people in a short period of time are no longer a significant threat. He says allowing screeners to concentrate on detonators and bomb parts instead of small weapons would make flying safer and the screening process more convenient.
"The captain is not going to open up the door. The captain is not going to surrender the cockpit and the passengers are not going to sit by and let the guy stand there with a knife," Hawley said. "I mean, you have to think of it as risk management. What is the is risk that somebody is going stand up there with a knife to somebody -- a child, a flight attendant -- the risk that they're going do that and then take over the plane? And do we put people through these long security lines, fishing through their bags, two million people a day, just to prevent the eventuality that somebody might get killed? That's a tradeoff."
Hawley is also in favor of allowing people to bring liquids on planes. He says the TSA is sitting on technology that screens liquids for explosives because it would slow down security lines.
"All you would have to do is set up a separate lane and say, 'people who want to bring bottles, go through these lanes.'" he said. "We have that technology, and I would argue, let's roll it out."
The one irritant most frequent flyers hate the most, shoe removal, is a hassle Hawley admits isn't solvable today.
"When I was head of TSA I kept telling people, you know, find me a shoe scanner. ... It's a challenge," he said.
In response to Hawley's interview with ABC News, the TSA said it respects the work he did for the administration and that it is continually trying to improve the security system.
"TSA is focused on providing the most effective security in the most efficient manner, while ensuring the freedom of movement of people and goods," the agency said in a statement. "The agency is moving away from one-size-fits-all screening to progress toward improving both security and the passenger experience."
Hawley believes the key to an effective and efficient airport security system is making sure the public and security services are on the same page.
"The system overall started off as a regulatory system of writing rules and enforcing rules, and that is the heart of the problem because al Qaeda knows those rules," he said. "If we removed that patdown, allowed liquids, radically cut back on the prohibited items list, I think the public would get back with TSA and support TSA."
While Hawley believes the TSA's focus needs to be reevaluated, he strongly disagrees with a small, but loud group of Libertarians who are calling for it to be eliminated. He says if the TSA did not exist the result would be catastrophic.
"They'll blow the planes up. They'll blow them up by the dozens," Hawley said. "I can literally say that there are between 12 and 18 specific, real, credible plots every day when I was at TSA."