John Pistole, the former FBI deputy director who became administrator of the Transportation Security Administration three years ago, is shaping the evolution of the agency created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a visit to the TSA staff at Tampa International Airport Thursday, Pistole talked with The Tampa Tribune about TSA’s strategies as the nation approaches the 12th anniversary of the attacks.
Pistole’s initiative, to allow more U.S. citizens to participate in TSA’s PreCheck expedited screening process, is part of his vision to tailor security to a risk-based assessment of passengers, replacing TSA’s strategy to consider all passengers the same potential threat.
New concepts range from specially trained officers looking for suspicious behavior to background checks for prospective participants in the PreCheck program.
Pistole said last month he will greatly expand PreCheck, enabling TSA to better focus its resources on travelers it knows the least about.
The TSA has been the focal point of plentiful, well-publicized criticism in its screening roles.
What’s drawn less attention is how the agency’s strategies and procedures have evolved in nearly 12 years of operation, after taking over commercial aviation security mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration but operated by private sector security screeners.
The questions and answers that follow were edited for brevity.
Q: Was a key issue on 9/11 the relatively simple access terrorists had to get into the cockpits and has corrective action been a key security component?
A: The issue on 9/11 actually began with the U.S. government and military strategy from the 1970s and 1980s to cooperate with hijackers to put the plane and the passengers down safely, then contend with hijackers’ demands. That changed with 9/11 and terrorists using aircraft as weapons. So cockpit doors have been secured physically to limit access.
Q: Does the TSA expect airline passengers could and would respond to a takeover attempt on an airliner, adding a layer of deterrence and protection to formal security?
A: Yes, it is likely at least some passengers would get actively involved, as they did on United Flight 93 (when the efforts of 40 passengers prevented the aircraft from carrying out a potential attack on Washington, D.C.). The TSA also uses air marshals on flights — the staffing is classified information — who add to deterrence.
Q: If passenger and other vigilance has improved since 9/11, what can you say about other potential threats inside an airliner?
A: There has been a migration to nonmetallic threats, including liquid and plastic explosives. Our focus at the checkpoint must be detecting improvised explosive devices and the components that could be used to construct IEDs. That is why we have the limitations on liquids that passengers can carry on board.
Q: How does the IED risk extend beyond U.S. airports?
A: The gold standard for terrorists is to get into the U.S. aviation system and blow up a plane. The attempted attacks in the 12 years since 9/11 have all originated overseas: the shoe bomber in December 2001; the August 2006 liquids plot to bring down multiple aircraft flying to the U.S. from Europe; the underwear bomber on Christmas Day in 2009; and the October 2010 Yemen cargo plot using toner cartridge IEDs.
The Anarchist Cookbook (which contains information on how to make explosives) has inspired online material from Yemen showing how devices can be made.
The FBI recently demonstrated in a video how about 5 inches of liquids in a plastic water bottle could be turned into a device that explodes and can rupture the skin of an aircraft.
Q: The TSA does not have a say on how intelligence is collected — a timely issue given the National Security Agency revelations and issues that have evoked diverse public and elected officials opinions. But what can you say about how the TSA uses intelligence it is provided?
A: Our headquarters staff gets a classified briefing each day on worldwide intelligence. That includes information from federal, state and local authorities and concerned citizens.
Fifteen different agencies including the FAA and the Department of Defense assign personnel to our operations center in Herndon, Va., where we evaluate real-time information. That’s a significant development post-9/11 because it means all those agencies have the same information at the onset of an event, which had not been the case previously.
Q: Please relate a key change you have introduced in your three-year tenure as administrator that’s contributed to the evolution and improvement of the TSA.
A: We are moving away from the “one-size-fits-all” outlook on screening airline passengers to a risk-based security concept. That began with age-based screening modifications for passengers 12 and younger and 75 and older who do not have to remove their belt, shoes or a light jacket.
The TSA PreCheck program in use at Tampa International Airport enables eligible participants to be screened in dedicated lanes and not remove laptops or compliant liquids from carry-ons. The TSA is greatly expanding travelers eligible for PreCheck screening.