Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary of transportation, pulls a thin file folder out of his desk and ruffles through a dozen or so pieces of paper. It's the blueprint for building the Transportation Security Administration.
Jackson talks energetically between sips of soda as his dinner hour slips away. His message seems simple: Make a plan, stick with it, build on it.
The TSA plan guided the government's largest mobilization since the Vietnam War. More than 44,000 passenger security screeners were hired and trained in less than a year.
The plan went to President Bush on Nov. 29 a year ago, only 10 days after Congress passed legislation creating the TSA. Planes hijacked by terrorists had slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and lawmakers, demanding tighter airport security, decided that passenger and baggage screening should be performed by federal workers.
Congress gave the TSA one year -- until Nov. 19, 2002 -- to hire, train and deploy passenger security screeners at each of the nation's 429 commercial airports. Almost no one thought TSA would make the deadline. But it did.
As the Bush administration moves to create a Department of Homeland Security, some parts of the TSA experience may prove instructive. The agency spent countless hours on planning and management. Perhaps most important, TSA tried to strike a balance: Never rush an important decision, but never fall behind in making and executing decisions.
From the start, Jackson said, Transportation Department officials "believed that we could get it done. . . . We had to refine the process continually but stuck to the same basic game plan. And the team that implemented the plan believed it would happen. It was just the sheer determination to hit that goal that made the difference."
He added: "It may sound a little corny, but I think it was all about passion. . . . Everybody on this team had this passion for not failing."
At the start, though, outsiders thought the TSA was moving too slowly. In January, the agency had only 13 employees. The first TSA screeners didn't go on duty until April 30, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The next two sets of screeners were not deployed until June.
The public's perception of the TSA's progress appeared to hit bottom in May and June. But inside the TSA, Jackson recalled, "we knew that things had started to congeal. . . . We were saying, 'Trust us, we're going to get there.' "
The TSA, as a new agency with no infrastructure, farmed out much of its start-up work to contractors, including Lockheed Martin, NCS Pearson, Boeing-Siemens and VF Solutions.
As the Nov. 19 deadline drew near, TSA was hiring, on average, 3,300 screeners a week. In the midst of the hiring binge, screeners were being given 44 hours of classroom training and 60 hours of on-the-job training.
Most of the on-the-job training in recent months has taken place at airport checkpoints during the middle of the day. The extra staffing looked like bureaucracy at its worst to some travelers, who quipped that "TSA" stood for "thousands standing around."
Such comments irk TSA executives, who point out that once the training cycle ends, the TSA plans to redeploy many screeners to other duties. For instance, numerous screeners at boarding gates will move into baggage screening in coming weeks.
The massive start-up has not been without glitches. A number of job seekers have complained that their applications were lost or ignored. Some screeners in Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia have complained about not being paid on time. (Starting salaries for screeners range from $23,600 to $35,400.)
As TSA employees celebrated the agency's first anniversary last week, the top leaders were trying to write the next big plan. James M. Loy, who heads TSA, wants to look ahead to consider what role TSA will play in seaport, railroad, mass transit and highway security.
Loy has set up a group "to determine for me what TSA ought to be, what should we look like in 2005. That's not very strategic. But, for what we're about at the beginning, to imagine where we should be in 2005 is enormously important."
Stephen Barr's e-mail address is email@example.com.