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Safety First

TSA Administrator John Pistole talks about airport security procedures and his mission to keep the skies safe for all Americans.
By Nicole Meoli

As we shuffle through security line after security line in America’s airports, feeling like robots on a conveyer belt, it’s easy to mistake the officers in blue–you know, the ones telling us to take our liquids and laptops out of our carry-ons and remove all shoes, belts and jackets–as machines as well. Say and think what we will, but the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) may just be our last line of defense between landing safely at our destinations or being firsthand witnesses to an air disaster caused by a terrorist.

plane (c)

Below: “I’m driving the change toward providing the most effective security in the most efficient way.“

John Pistole
TSA Administrator


A year and half ago, John Pistole was appointed administrator of the TSA, bringing with him a long history in the FBI and counterterrorism. His resume no doubt fits the bill. But it’s his humanistic approach to leading the TSA and the desire to communicate with the traveling public that just might make a world of difference in years to come.

Pistole sat down with me in his Washington, D.C., office to answer a few questions on what he’s been up to lately, what his goals are, and what travelers might expect in the months ahead.

It’s no secret that America has had a love affair with cars and traveling in general. What was your first memorable experience traveling in a car?

I was the youngest of four children and I was 5 years old, we took a six-week driving trip from Indiana throughout the Southwest, West Coast, Pacific Northwest, Northern Plains and back. It was a business trip for my dad but all six of us did the trip pulling a small trailer. I have terrific memories. In fact some of my earliest memories of life are from that trip. Mostly positive … you can imagine six people in a confined space. The car didn’t have air conditioning and this was 1961 in the middle of the Arizona desert in the middle of summer. So one of my jobs was to dab a towel on an ice block–we had an ice block–and then dab my dad’s head to keep him cool. We hit national parks along the way. It was just a great experience.

You have served as the TSA administrator for nearly two years. When you accepted the position, what changes did you want to bring to TSA’s operations, particularly in aviation travel security?

There was obviously a huge focus on aviation security, and it was the reason TSA was created post-9/11 on Nov. 19, 2001.

One of the things that struck me is it seemed that we had a one-size-fits-all construct, so one of the things is, is there a way of differentiating? How can we at least maintain–if not increase security–by going about it in a different way?

So that’s why really for the last year or more, (I started in July of 2010), we’ve been working on what falls under the umbrella of Risk Based Security to strengthen security while also improving the travel experience whenever possible. And we have a number of iterations of that, including, for example, the World War II veterans who come to Washington, D.C., on charter flights or honor flights to visit the WWII memorial. We changed the policy to recognize the very high likelihood that they are not terrorists … let’s recognize them for their service to the country and do Identity Based Screening for them. So as long as we can verify that they are WWII vets on a charter flight, then we do Identity Based Screening.

We just started something (in September) that we call TSA Pre4™. It’s like a trusted traveler program. We’re working with Delta and American airlines right now and we have had over 65,000 people going through this program. So people share info about themselves in their frequent flier programs and then we can do more of an assessment on the front end so we can expedite their physical screening. For example, in four airports, we’re doing a proof of concept and passengers are allowed to go through a dedicated lane and can keep their shoes on, keep a light jacket on, keep a belt on, keep laptops in briefcases, and keep liquids, aerosols, and gels in their carry on bag.

The goal is to separate the “knowns” from the “unknowns.” If we think about trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack–that terrorist–the more we can take the knowns, who we have some confidence that they are not terrorists, then we can spend more time focusing on those who we don’t know much about, and of course, those who we do know a lot about because they’re on a terrorist watch list. It’s through the combination of technology and intelligence that we’re able to do that and so that’s also part of this risk based initiative.

There’s no fee to this from TSA and it is voluntary for the public. One of my criteria is that there be no fee to the taxpayers. And if you don’t want to participate, you don’t have to.

Do you have an estimated date as to when this would be standard procedure in all airports?

By this time next year, the goal is to have multiple airports on board, especially the larger airports. It has to make sense for the airlines, the airports, and for us because we have to allocate resources to this dedicated lane. If there’s not enough people using it, then that means the other lanes start getting longer. And that’s not a good solution either.

Someone who’s flown more miles over a period of time is more likely to qualify than someone who hasn’t. There’s no guarantee and even though someone elects to opt in, they still may be subject to random and unpredictable search at anytime because I don’t want terrorists being able to game the system.

TSA gets pretty beaten up by Congress, some industry groups, and air travelers on a regular basis for some of the new air screening procedures. What steps is the agency taking to improve operations while not compromising safety and security?

As I mentioned, we’re trying to get away from that one-size-fits-all approach to one that differentiates among passengers based on what we know and uses multiple layers of security.

I start everyday with a classified intelligence briefing to tell me what’s going on in the world about anything related to transportation, whether its aviation, busses, or trains. I then take that info and make some informed judgments and decisions.

Of course, I also have them look ahead at anyone who’s on a watch list who may be intending to travel to ensure we have coverage on that flight if necessary. That’s something we weren’t able to do until last year when what’s known as ‘Secure Flight’ came into play. That’s when you have to give your name, date of birth, and gender when you make your reservation, and then we make sure the people on the watch list are afforded the proper security or are not issued a boarding pass at all.

You’ll also see some changes with in screening procedures for children 12 and under. They’ll still go through screening, but now we allow them to keep their shoes on, which is a big benefit, especially for parents of small children where that can be a challenge.

And then we do a modified screening that has substantially reduced, but not eliminated, the number of pat downs. Because in the final analysis, we have to be able to resolve if there’s something of an anomaly or something alarming, we may have to perform a pat down in rare instances.

In terms of changes passengers may see in some airports, we are updating the body scanners with further privacy protection software known as Automatic Target Recognition. So you still go through, but then there’s a screen right after you step out that you can actually look at that just shows a generic outline of a person. If there’s any type of anomaly, then it just shows up as a box.

With this new software, it eliminates passenger-specific images, and we no longer need a separate booth where someone is monitoring images. Instead, it’s right there so you as a passenger can see it, the security officer sees it, and so instead of a full pat down, they know exactly where to go if you’ve left your Blackberry® in your pocket, for example. More and more passengers will see this type of machine that addresses the privacy concerns some people have raised.

I’ve heard it said that “TSA doesn’t use any common sense,” but the agency was created to insure another 9/11 didn’t happen. I agree that we must continue to be thorough, I just think that there’s a different way to go about doing that using risk.

Could you give a couple tips to air travelers and tell them what they could do to help with the screening process?

I think one of the best things, and it gets back to the issue of an informed passenger is one of our best allies, is really just go to the Web site ( and there are a number of tips there, especially if you’re not a frequent traveler. If you’re a holiday-only traveler, then go there and take a few minutes to plan.

We are always soliciting feedback. We have our blog and a Talk to TSA function ( if people have suggestions or ideas, we’re always interested in hearing those. My bottom line, though, is that any changes that we make have to at least maintain, if not improve security.

What do you love most about your job and what do you find most challenging?

It’s almost the same. I thoroughly enjoy the daily challenges, but really the chance to lead a relatively young agency. I come from an agency–the FBI–that has a 100-year-plus history with a lot of established traditions. To lead an agency with a young history and to really make some positive changes that help it become a high-performing organization with a national security counterterrorism focus is what I love about the job. That, and working with terrific people.

The challenge is communicating effectively particularly with those who don’t understand what we’re doing or simply disagree with how we go about doing things. And again, given 1.8 million opportunities everyday, frankly, there’s bound to be someone who’s not 100 percent completely satisfied with the way they were treated. I can’t think of any business that deals with that many people a day–especially in a personal kind of way–that has a 100-percent satisfaction rate. Reasonable people can disagree how they individually get screened, but I can guarantee you want to make sure everyone else who gets on that plane with you has been thoroughly screened.

Could you give us a behind-the-scenes look at screening once passengers pass through the scanners? Is the security check complete?

No. We have multiple layers of security just within TSA, and that’s all informed by the intelligence on the front end, and then other agencies that inform us, so that hopefully, before anybody–a terrorist–gets to the airport, we’ll be prepared, whether it’s by the FBI or someone else.

But that being the case, we go through the multiple layers of security. There’s what people see at the checkpoint, there may be K9s that they see or don’t see, there may be behavioral detection officers that they see or don’t see, there may be people past the checkpoint–sometimes people at the gate. We’ll have security officers go to the gate and do follow-up screening. It may be a swab of your hands, randomly, it may be a swab of your bag, randomly, or it may be just a visual inspection of your bag. Those are things that we use in a random, unpredictable way that can be frustrating to passengers because they want predictability, but the whole system has to work so terrorists can’t game the system. We also have thousands of Federal Air Marshals on flights.

Despite our name–the American Automobile Association–our members are transit riders as well. Are there any security programs for mass transit under consideration by the TSA?

DHS (Department of Homeland Security) has provided nearly $2 billion in transit grant funding to help systems bolster their security. We also have VIPR teams (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response), which are uniformed local law enforcement with TSA, often with a K9, to act as a visible deterrent to terrorists. More than 20,000 VIPR operations have been conducted to date. We know from debriefings of terrorists that they are dissuaded by uniformed police officers, K9s and closed-circuit television cameras. We try to work with the local transit authorities in those areas of training, but as far as physical screening, it’s just not practical to try and replicate what we have in the airport. We partner with certain police departments and their subway systems and metro transit agencies. Amtrak does a terrific job with their uniformed police officers and K9s, but to set up an airport-like protocol at the train or bus stations is not feasible in such an open system. We work with local departments to augment their needs based on risk.

Are there any specific goals you’ve set for yourself?

In the year ahead, my top goal is to expand the Risk Based Security initiative, working with Customs and Border Protection, airlines, airports, flight crew, and the traveling public. The whole security business is a partnership with the traveling public, with airlines, trains, busses, and those who operate them–everyone working together toward a common goal of keeping travel safe.

Nicole Meoli is editor of AAA Washington’s Western Journey magazine.

Mar/Apr 2012 Issue

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