WASHINGTON – On Sept. 11,2001,John S. Pistole was an FBI agent going about his normal duties in Rochester,N.Y. A decade after terrorists breached American airport security and killed thousands,he is leading the effort to prevent future attacks.
Pistole is the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration,which was created after Sept. 11 to protect travelers on American transit systems. TSA employees are most visible at airport security checkpoints,but the organization’s jurisdiction extends to public transit and roads.
Pistole discussed the state of domestic transportation security Wednesday at the Newseum and outlined initiatives the organization is exploring for the future.
“There’s no guarantees in this business,and that’s become very apparent given all of the challenges we have,” Pistole said. “We are in the risk-mitigation and risk-management business rather than risk elimination.”
Terrorists have changed their techniques to evade improving security measures,he said,leading them to carry explosive liquids and hide bombs in their shoes and underwear.
Pistole said the agency is concerned about reports that terrorists could surgically implant bombs,which would be difficult to detect.
“Terrorists don’t follow our societal norms,” Pistole said. “We don’t see children as being terrorists,but we know that parents and others use children to do bad things.”
While safety is the top priority,TSA has other objectives. Security officers try to screen travelers quickly and to respect their privacy. But an increase in carry-on luggage that airport workers must inspect has slowed the process,and new security threats have led to more invasive screening procedures,such as full-body scans.
TSA is looking into intelligence screening to make security checks more efficient,Pistole said. Learning more about potential threats could speed up the process for regular travelers and low-risk groups,and officers could focus their efforts on high-risk travelers.
“What I want to do is make sure we’re informed by the latest intelligence techniques and things like that so that somebody,a possible terrorist,is identified well before they get to the airport,” Pistole said. “That’s the best defense we have.”
He said a key part of TSA’s mission is “random and unpredictable” searches. Even the most innocent-looking travelers,such as senior citizens,need to be screened.
“We know there have been two 64-year-olds who were suicide bombers,and there’s a number of people on the terrorist watch list who are older than that,” Pistole said. “Anytime you do a blanket exemption,if you will,then you run the risk.”
TSA is also looking at improved physical screening techniques. Pistole wants to develop a tunnel that could detect security threats as people walk through it. This would eliminate the need to remove metal objects or take off any clothing,and travelers would move through the checkpoint more quickly. So far,that’s just an idea.
Gauging the TSA’s effectiveness is difficult: Success is zero attacks and threats.
“It’s similar to the Secret Service and protecting the president,” Pistole said. “Every day that goes by,we don’t know what people didn’t try because of the great job the Secret Service does day in and day out.”
Reach reporter Michael Stainbrook at [email protected] or 202-326-9868
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