TSA chief John Pistole testifies on Capitol Hill.

TSA chief John Pistole testifies on Capitol Hill. Molly Riley/AP file photo

Pistole Offers Valedictory on Once-'Beleaguered' TSA

Colleagues laud shift from 'one-size-fits-all' to risk-based terrorist screening approach.

John Pistole, set to leave government this month after four-and-a-half-years as the longest-serving administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, on Wednesday summed up his agency’s accomplishments in balancing the twin missions of maximizing security while retaining goodwill from the traveling public.

“In moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to a risk-based approach to screening for terrorists, we have at least maintained if not increased security, and at the same time increased free movement of goods,” Pistole told former colleagues and reporters at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute.

“The opportunities we faced have put us in a good place,” he said, listing several positive outcomes: Nearly 50 percent of airline passengers are now going through expedited airport screening; traveler feedback is trending positive with only 25 percent comprising complaints; security check wait times have been reduced by 75 percent to under five minutes for most passengers despite rising volume; and TSA has expanded its capacity with a budget that was cut by $530 million in the past three years, he said.

“In fiscal 2015, we gave back $100 million to the treasury,” Pistole added. But a recent visit to the Ground Zero memorial in New York City was a “sobering reminder of colleagues lost, and why we do the job we do,” said the former FBI agent. “I always set the context that threats remain. The bad guys in the Middle East are still interested in an aviation plot against the United States, maybe in Europe too, but for them the U.S. remains the gold standard” target, he said. “So we manage risk, but we don’t eliminate risk, in partnership with our airlines, airports and overseas counterparts whom we try to keep informed.”

Pistole’s legacy drew praise from Judge William Webster, the former director of the FBI and CIA now chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, who called him “a trusted, respected leader who never seemed to have to raise his voice.”  Webster applauded the way Pistole subjected every TSA policy to review and “steered away from unnecessary procedures.” Presenting the TSA chief with a new pen knife, Webster teased him that the only time Pistole was “second-guessed” was when he narrowed the list of items prohibited for passengers boarding an airplane—a move that drew complaints from Congress and some families victimized by the 9/11 terrorist attacks—but retained the ban on pen knives, “which will have to be addressed by someone else.”

Adm. James Loy, the former Coast Guard commandant who was also acting Homeland Security Secretary, credited Pistole with “thoughtfully and consistently balancing the hallmarks” laid down after 9/11 by then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who stressed efficient, effective security as well as efficient, effective passenger service.

“That beleaguered agency is now respected,” Loy said, in part “because Pistole, buffeted by opinions from people with no actual responsibility, wasn’t afraid to conduct stupid rule review.” Loy’s example of a bad rule was when a decade ago airport ticket agents checking baggage would ask passengers whether their bag had been left unmonitored, “as if a terrorist would offer insight” to the agency, he chuckled.

Pistole noted that when he arrived in 2010 TSA “was giving late-night comics fodder, had alienated the public and was not doing the best job protecting the public,” his example being the unsuccessful attempt to blow up an aircraft on Christmas Day 2009 by a Nigerian with explosives in his underwear. Traveling for the FBI for 27 years, Pistole himself had always been waved through as a “trusted traveler,” so he began exploring ways to apply a “risk-based, intelligence-driven” approach to differentiating who might be a terrorist, given that “intelligence is the biggest driver in foiling terrorist plots from overseas.”

Today, he said, TSA routinely waves through 250,000 to 300,000 flight crew members for boarding aircraft, “though we do real-time checks to make sure they’re in good standing.” Most important, some 750,000 members of the public are now expedited through TSA’s Pre-Check program (with 3.3 million more in similar programs run by Customs and Border Protection).  Enrollees pay $85 for pre-screening good for five years ($100 for overseas flights). Likened to grocery store express checkout lanes, TSA’s Pre-Check lanes now number 500 at 124 airports, out of 2,200 screening lanes at 450 airports nationwide. 

In the future, it would be good to see “a majority of passengers in Pre-Check, along with improved technology for imaging liquids and shoes and more international reciprocity,” Pistole said. “No one in Pre-Check has yet come up on a terrorist watchlist,” he added, watchlists that permit U.S. authorities to commandeer flights en route to the United States “or even flying over U.S. airspace” if a known terrorist is believed onboard.

The biggest surprise of his tenure, Pistole said, was the “richness and depth of intelligence briefings,” along with the “sense of mission, even out in the field.” His chief disappointment was that he didn’t get his message out to achieve greater buy-in on the changes to the prohibited items list.

Pistole owned up to TSA “dropping the ball” at Chicago’s Midway Airport during last week’s crowded Thanksgiving Weekend travel, when screening lanes for Southwest Airlines opened an hour late, causing long lines and delays.  But a record 2.3 million people flew this past Sunday, the busiest day since 2008 just before the recession started, he noted. This summer was also the busiest since 2008.

Addressing reports of passenger property theft by TSA agents, Pistole said his team has run some 1,500 integrity tests, in which they strategically placed cellphones, laptops and cash in bins to expose agents to the temptations. Bimonthly results showed that out of 10,000 agents exposed, “15 did not do the right thing, and were fired,” he said, with some criminally prosecuted.

As for the privatization movement that competes against TSA’s franchise, Pistole said 19 airports currently use private contractors for screening, with contracts coming at Portsmouth, N.H. and the Punta Gorda Airport near Fort Myers, Fla., the latter being home to Republican Rep. John Mica, a longtime critic of TSA. Some 35 airports have applied for privatization, but some have withdrawn the request, he added. In Pistole’s visits to more than 100 airports, he found that all but one—San Francisco—said they’ll stick with TSA, he said, adding that costs of private companies tend to be 3 percent to 9 percent higher.

Eying the new Congress, Pistole said he is optimistic for bipartisan support for TSA’s budgeting around greater use of risk-based screening, noting that “one size fits all is expensive.” The famously duplicative congressional oversight committees make things more difficult for the larger Homeland Security Department than for TSA, he said.

As one of his final acts during the holiday season—when terrorist threats are high—he will meet next week with counterparts from Europe, Canada and North Africa to attempt to “harmonize security” protocols to avoid duplicative screening for three-stop international flights. He expressed confidence that, though the stakes are high, progress can be made collaboratively.

He then will repair to his Indiana hometown, where he will become president of Anderson University, a Christian liberal arts college that has a center for public service.

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