Securing the Skies
A field attorney in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ New York Division, Powell had been preparing paperwork earlier that morning for an upcoming hearing. She was at her desk in Building 6 of the World Trade Center, when the building suddenly shuddered and their sixth floor office windows imploded.
Powell and her colleagues did not know, and never could have imagined, that a plane had just deliberately flown into the North Tower, sending its destructive shock waves through their building—a building that sat squarely between the Twin Towers—and beyond.
Instinctively, she recalled the feeling she had experienced in 1993 when a truck bomb exploded in the World Trade Center underground garage. On that morning, she had felt the bomb’s impact rock her train as it pulled out of the World Trade Center (WTC) station. The sensation on this September morning was eerily reminiscent to Powell, leading her to believe that the building had been bombed.
Wasting no time, she helped shepherd her coworkers down the stairs and out across the plaza to Vesey Street. And then she saw the unimaginable and incomprehensible take place, as a second plane flew into the WTC South Tower. She continued to steer coworkers and others further away from the buildings to safety. She helped an ATF inspector make contact with his wife. But she wanted to do even more.
And so she went back—back to the World Trade Center, hoping she could help in some way.
She walked to West Street—six blocks from the World Trade Center—and saw firemen and policemen rushing toward the North Tower. She saw her ATF Bureau colleagues on the scene. Powell hoped that the Bureau would call to ask her for assistance, or, an ATF agent, seeing the ID around her neck, might ask for her help. She stayed, amid emergency vehicles and personnel, hoping she could be of some assistance.
But her attempt to help would ultimately be futile.
In the days and months that followed, Powell had difficulty eating and sleeping. She was plagued by questions she could not answer, with one question continually haunting her. “Of the 2,600 people who died that day, why was I spared?” asked Powell. “I survived a catastrophe. Why me? What was I meant to do?”
Less than a year later, she would get her answer.
She was called to help build the Office of Chief Counsel for a new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and to serve as Supervisory Counsel for its New Jersey field operations, pioneering the role of field counsel for the nascent agency.
“When I got the call, I knew I finally had my answer,” says Powell. “I had been spared for a reason, and now I could give something back. It was something I felt I was meant to do. And I was honored to do so.”
On November 19, 2001—little more than two months after September 11—Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, establishing the TSA federalizing airport security at all of the 450 U.S. commercial airports. The new legislation called for TSA deployment of a federal security workforce at each of the U.S. airports within twelve months of the bill’s passage, and implementation of baggage screening operations by December 31, 2002. It would represent the largest mobilization of civilian personnel by the federal government in U.S. history.
There was a palpable urgency to the work of the agency.
Approximately two months after her arrival, she was called to assist in federalizing security at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York. Within hours of getting the call, Powell was on the job, “at JFK that same day—without a car, without a computer. I was whisked in with only my tablet and pencil. Everyone had to hit the ground running.”
Together with only two other TSA administrators, she worked to replace the privately contracted screening operation with federal security screeners. The three oversaw the operation as 400 federal security screening officers from across the country converged on JFK to commence passenger screening by federal personnel, and Powell acted as advisor on issues ranging from security measure requirements to procurement to contract oversight. In little over a month’s time, a federalized security operation was up and running at JFK. Powell had hit the ground running, indeed.
Today, as the TSA’s Federal Security Director (FSD) at Newark Liberty International Airport, Powell oversees security operations at the nation’s tenth busiest airport, with more than 36.3 million passengers going through its gates last year alone. Prior to being named to this post in January of 2008, she served as Newark’s Deputy of Federal Security to Director Mark Hatfield, Jr., and, subsequently, became the Acting Director at Newark Liberty upon Hatfield’s move to Miami International seven months later.
With six years of combined experience directing security operations at Newark, Powell is acutely aware of its security concerns—as the fifth busiest international hub in the U.S., and of its particular place in history.
On September 11, United Airlines Flight 93 pulled out of Newark Airport’s Gate A17 en route to San Francisco. After a foiled hijacking attempt by terrorists, it crashed into a Shanksville, Pennsylvania field. A U.S. flag flies prominently above Newark’s Gate A17, and the airport, formerly called Newark International Airport, now bears the name, Newark Liberty International Airport, in memory of all those who lost their lives that day.
“Of the 19 terrorists involved in the attacks of September 11, ten of them boarded in Boston, five boarded at Dulles International, and four got on in Newark,” says Powell. “The story of September 11 is a very personal story for me—as it is for many who work at Newark Liberty and the airports of New York and Washington, D.C. Many of the people in the region saw the events first-hand.
“And now it is my responsibility—as it is for each of us at the TSA—to keep the traveling public safe. And to make sure that the events of that day never happen again—not on our watch.”
That is Powell’s mission, simply defined—a mission she shares with the 1,400 security professionals she oversees—from transportation security inspectors, cargo inspectors, surface transportation crew, 24-hour Command Center personnel, law enforcement officers, to the 1,200 uniformed Transportation Security Officers and terminal managers who handle passenger and bag screening. Powell helps security personnel understand that mission at the beginning of their training.
“I lead the team that works on the front lines each and every day,” says Powell. And thus it is her job, says Powell, to equip them with the skills and training they need, so that when they assess and respond to a security threat or risk, they can do so intelligently, reasonably and quickly. To do that, employees are trained and retrained in agency procedures and regulations. Equally important, says Powell, employees are taught critical thinking and reasoning skills.
“We want employees to think beyond the textbook. We want them to be able to think on their feet. And that’s where the development of good judgment and good instincts and the ability to think critically and analytically are invaluable. Those are the skills, I believe, that ultimately will save lives.” Kip Hawley of the TSA, when speaking before the House Committee on Homeland Security, perhaps said it best by saying, ‘It is not about completing a checklist. It is about stopping terror plots.’”
Each week, the TSA Web site lists the number of security risks that were detected and disrupted by TSA officers—from fraudulent travel documents, to multiple fraudulent IDs, to concealed firearms and other prohibited items seized at checkpoints.
In Orlando this past spring, for example, a passenger’s suspicious behavior caught the attention of a TSA behavior detection specialist. In a search of the passenger’s bags before screening, the officers found all the components necessary to make a bomb.
And at Miami International Airport, a passenger fled the scene after being stopped by travel document checkers and behavior detection officers. Later apprehended, the passenger was found to be carrying multiple fraudulent IDs—all with different names.
“The traveling public is usually not aware of the level of assessment going on all around them. And that’s good. We want to make their travel as seamless as possible, while, at the same time, inspiring confidence in our ability to help keep them safe,” says Powell.
Because of the very nature of their work, TSA employees, outside of the agency, often do not receive public praise. And so Powell sees to it that her employees are recognized—by celebrating their successes, building trust in their abilities, and by bolstering their confidence.
Powell has clearly built a collegial, collaborative environment where the sense of shared commitment is palpable. As Powell walks through a Newark Liberty terminal, she engenders big smiles and a kind word from each and every one she passes—from baggage screeners, to document checkers, to law enforcement. There is a clear sense of teamwork, with Powell instinctively referring to her 1,400-person staff as “my team.”
Powell enjoys an equally collaborative relationship with other federal agencies. Powell works with TSA’s own intelligence reports as well as with intelligence reports from a host of federal agencies. “Intelligence bulletins are shared among agencies, and we regularly share information with each other,” explains Powell.
And that is critical, for responsiveness and flexibility are key as TSA personnel across the country adapt to an ever-changing security environment—an environment that can change in an instant.
Agency personnel had to act swiftly in August of 2006 to enforce a ban on carry-on liquids. Within a matter of hours, all agency security personnel across the U.S. had implemented enforcement. A month later, TSA employees once again responded equally quickly when the ban was lifted to allow three-ounce carry-on containers of liquids, lotions and gels. Highly flexible and adaptive, TSA employees must continually learn and implement the latest procedures, from mandatory shoe screening, to bottled liquid scanner devices, to the newly instituted passenger ATX-ray and Passenger Imaging devices. Newark Liberty, as one of the nation’s 21 busiest airports, will be receiving this new technology to improve detection of prohibited items, weapons, and small “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs) concealed under clothing.
When it comes to flexibility and adaptiveness, Powell is the ultimate role model for her employees. In her role at Newark, Powell is responsible for not only airport security operations, but also coordinates security initiatives for rail, road and maritime transportation in the area.
This is the work Powell had always wanted to do. From the time she was eleven, she knew she wanted to help people, and wished she could defend them—and even help “get the bad guy.” Over time, what began as a childlike sensibility blossomed into what Powell can only describe as a “calling.” Her pursuit of a life of public service ultimately led her to Pitt Law, forming the foundation of all that would follow.
After graduating, she served as assistant counsel at the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, working with U.S. attorneys, FBI and U.S. Custom officials in the prosecution of corruption cases. She subsequently joined the New York Field Division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, serving as legal counsel. As legal counsel to the Bureau’s special agents, inspectors and auditors, she investigated and prosecuted cases involving money laundering, cigarette and firearms trafficking as well as violations of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act and the Internal Revenue Code.
For her exemplary service to the Bureau, Powell was named ATF Outstanding Professional Employee of the Year in 2001, the only attorney in the history of that agency to receive this honor.
Barbara Powell ultimately got her wish and her answer. Her most fervent wish as an eleven-year-old girl has come true. And her most haunting question post 9/11 has been answered. She can now do that which she has always wanted to do—helping people by keeping them safe. And now she understands why she was called to do so.
“I carry the memory of September 11 with me every day. I can never forget what happened that day. And I believe it’s important that we never do. But I can sleep better at night now knowing that I can play some small part toward keeping the American public safe.”
And as to her future? She plans to stay at the TSA, for she has not yet accomplished all that she has set out to do.
And so, she will stay—just as she did on that fateful day seven years ago—because she wants to help.
This time, she will be an invaluable help.