TSA chief sees airline security as his paramount concern

Pistole says enhanced physical pat-downs are necessary to ensure safety.

John Pistole, the embattled head of the Transportation Security Administration, has targeted bad people who try to do bad things to Americans for nearly 27 years.

But now, the man who ended a career in the FBI to take over TSA in June, finds himself a target of fierce public criticism over his agency's use of enhanced physical pat-downs at U.S. airports.

But talking to a group of reporters over breakfast Monday, Pistole appeared unfazed by the public firestorm. He acknowledged the backlash but repeatedly said the new pat-downs are necessary to ensure airline safety-one of the primary missions Congress and the White House gave the agency after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

When asked what he thinks of his job now, Pistole said simply that it is "fascinating."

Pistole said he made the decision to begin the new, "enhanced" pat-downs after consulting with the White House and Homeland Security Department officials. A TSA spokeswoman said they went into effect at airports nationwide November 1.

To be sure, Pistole emphasized there needs to be a balance between providing security and protecting civil liberties. But he sees a world of threats requiring bold responses.

"I know the threats are real and people want to [fly] safely," he told reporters at the breakfast, sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Indeed, if any changes to screening procedures are going to be made in the near future, they're most likely going to have to be ordered by the White House, which has largely avoided criticism so far.

Despite comments by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the weekend acknowledging how uncomfortable airport pat-downs can be, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has firmly sided with Pistole by emphasizing the need to make air travel safe, especially during the holidays.

When asked what he thought about the public backlash, Pistole rattled off a series of threats that drove officials to devise new airport screening procedures-starting with last Christmas, when a Nigerian man tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit with explosives sewn into his underwear.

Pistole also cited continuing worries that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is actively plotting to blow up planes.

He said testing by the Government Accountability Office, the DHS inspector general, and TSA red teams repeatedly showed that dangerous items could get through airport checkpoints specifically due to "a lack of thorough pat-downs." He said the gaps date back to 2005.

And he noted that two women blew up two different Russian planes in near simultaneous terrorist attacks in 2004 using explosives hidden under their clothes.

Even the decision regarding how to make the changes in pat-downs at airports was driven by security concerns. TSA could have made a public announcement and given passengers months to prepare for the new procedures, but Pistole thought that might tip off terrorists. Instead, he chose to roll the new procedures out quietly, almost stealthily, in the hopes of catching potential terrorists. TSA was even careful about putting information on its website about the procedures because, according to Pistole, that information is read by AQAP.

Pistole didn't make any apologizes for his decisions. He noted that only a small fraction of passengers are subjected to enhanced pat-downs-mainly those who refuse to go through full-body imaging machines or when TSA officers find something suspicious during routine screening.

He also reiterated what he and Napolitano have been saying to the public for a week: Do not expect changes to the procedures in the near future, although changes could be made if warranted and if doing so does not compromise security.

"Where do you draw the line? There's no perfect science to this," Pistole said. "The bottom line is that if somebody decides they don't want to go through screening they don't have a right to get on the plane."

But with the holidays just around the corner, more questions are likely to be raised about what else TSA might require passengers to undergo and whether other screening options make more sense.

Screening procedures need to be respectful of passengers, he acknowledged, ruling out the idea of searching body cavities.

"We are not going to get in the business of doing body cavities," Pistole said. "That is not where we are."

He said he "strongly" believes that behavior analysis should be part of the airport screening process. But he said behavior detection is only one layer of defense among multiple layers.

And he said he wants to upgrade the full-body scanning machines with software that shows a stick figure or blob, rather than a detailed depiction of a person's body. But he said the software now produces too many false alarms, which would result in more people being subjected to pat-downs.

He could not offer a timeline for when the upgrades will be coming.

For now, at least, Pistole appears ready and willing to take the lumps that come with public anger over security protocols, continuing to carry out his duties to ensure airline security.