TSA chief: optimist about everything but terror

September 9, 2011 - 4:15 AM
Sept 11 TSA Boss

In this Sept. 7, 2011, photo, Transportation Security Administration Administrator John Pistole speaks at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance conference in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. Pistole, who for decades as an FBI agent breezed past airport security checkpoints, is the faceless bane of air travelers who must remove belts, endure an intimate pat-down or are instructed to throw away a perfectly good 6-ounce bottle of shampoo. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Each day, dozens of U.S. intelligence officials crowd around a conference table in a small, windowless room in a government building across the street from a shopping mall in northern Virginia. At the head of the table sits the man who perhaps more than anyone else affects Americans most tangibly in the sprawling fight against terrorism since the September 2001 attacks.

John Pistole, who for decades as an FBI agent breezed past airport security checkpoints, is the faceless bane of air travelers who must remove belts, endure an intimate pat-down or are instructed to throw away a perfectly good 6-ounce bottle of shampoo.

Pistole, 53, now occupies what is among the least desirable roles in all of Washington. He is head of the Transportation Security Administration, the government agency that more than others traces its lineage to the terrorist hijackings of airplanes that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Based on top secret intelligence reports he sees every day at 8:30 a.m., Pistole sets the rules for the nation's 457 airports about how to protect America's planes, trains, buses and ferries.

On Thursday, U.S. officials were investigating a new, credible but unconfirmed threat involving an al-Qaida car bomb plot aimed at bridges or tunnels in New York City or Washington to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"If we're going to eliminate risk, then we're going to shut down air travel," Pistole said, adding that intelligence provides "our best opportunity to detect and deter."

Ten years after the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, terrorists remain fixated on taking down airplanes. It has been a decade-long cat-and-mouse game: The U.S. imposes a new security measure; terrorists try figure out a way around it.

Before 9/11, there was no one person in charge of all that Pistole oversees, and transportation security was governed by a hodge-podge of agencies and regulations.

Today, and every day, it falls to Pistole, a 26-year FBI veteran who has had a front-row seat to drastic changes in America over the past decade.

Pistole's story is also the story of a changed nation, one that has worked feverishly to track down 9/11 conspirators, fix fundamental intelligence problems and try, fail and retry to keep from trampling on privacy and civil liberties.

It was Pistole who, just weeks on the job, called for airport screeners to start using a new security pat-down, one that involved feeling around travelers' genital areas and breasts. It was an unpopular order but one that he believes offers the best chance of preventing a suicide bombing.

"I'm an optimist in life in all ways other than when it comes to terrorism," Pistole said. "And I think every day that goes by, we're a day closer to the next attack."

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On Sept. 11, 2001, Pistole was working in the FBI's inspections division, conducting a routine interview with a judge in upstate New York. Then he turned on the television and saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

"Well, this changes everything," he remembers thinking. And it did.

Pistole, from a small town in Indiana, comes from a family of educators. He practiced law for a couple years before he joined the FBI in 1983. At the time, the bureau had a storied history of solving murders and putting bank robbers and mobsters in prison. After 9/11, Pistole was tapped to help transform the bureau into one that prevented terrorism.

"We were building the plane while it was flying," said Raymond Holcomb, an FBI agent for nearly 23 years and author of the book "Endless Enemies: Inside FBI Counterterrorism."

"We were completely reorganizing and rebuilding the entire counterterrorism effort of the FBI," Holcomb said. "John was there at a most critical watershed moment."

The immediate concern was a second wave of attacks, Pistole said.

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Around the same time, the new Transportation Security Administration was struggling to get off the ground. It had to hire a new workforce of airport screeners, coordinate with airport operators, pilots unions and airlines, and buy new technology to screen passengers and baggage.

The logistics were daunting.

"None of us really knew how to set up lines at airports," said Norman Mineta, the transportation secretary at the time who was charged with creating this new agency from scratch.

Mineta turned to The Walt Disney Co., an organization familiar with snaking lines and anxious guests.

"When we sat down for the first time, we had no yellow pads, we had no pens, we had no desks," said James Loy, part of the original team under the Transportation Department. Loy would become the agency's second administrator and later the deputy secretary at the Homeland Security Department, which absorbed the TSA in 2003.

The past 10 years have been a bumpy road for both TSA and air travelers.

Passengers grew used to long lines and longer lists of prohibited items. Security officials unloaded and rescheduled planes when pocket knives or other contraband was found onboard. There were complaints about the TSA's screening policies, wasting money on security equipment that didn't work, hiring screeners without proper background checks, taking too long to screen air cargo and more.

"They've had so many fiascos," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a longtime critic of the agency he helped to create. "I think the good Lord has saved us most of the last years from disaster. Certainly not TSA."

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Pistole knew little about waiting in lines at airports. As an FBI agent, he always swept past airport security.

In 2004, Pistole shifted from the head of the FBI's counterterrorism division to the deputy director of the FBI, essentially the chief operating officer of the nation's premier law enforcement agency.

Pistole dealt with terror cells and plots around the country and also the investigation into the Blackwater guard shootings in Iraq, fraud cases involving mortgages and health care, Mexican drug cartels, public corruption and Ponzi schemes.

In 2006, al-Qaida plotted to sneak liquid explosives onto U.S.-bound planes in London. As the FBI worked with British officials investigating the plot, Pistole was unaware of the seismic shift it was causing at the TSA across the river in Virginia. In a span of about four hours, the agency changed the entire security checkpoint operation in U.S. airports, banning liquids in carry-on bags.

Within six weeks explosives research left TSA comfortable enough to allow 3.4 ounce containers, but only if packed in a single, 1-quart plastic, zip-locking bag.

"The baggie itself is a part of the security measure," said Kip Hawley, the TSA administrator at the time. He said it collects all of a passenger's liquid containers in one place so the screener doesn't have to go digging through bags. It also limits the amount of liquid any one person can bring aboard a plane, and the plastic baggie concentrates the liquid vapors to make it easier to spot hydrogen peroxide.

"It has worked to take the entire class of liquid explosives off the table for al-Qaida," Hawley said.

Again, the young security agency reinvented itself.

In 2006, terror leader Osama bin Laden was still on the lam, but al-Qaida's senior leadership was fragmented due to military and intelligence operations. The U.S. was transferring some detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, back to their countries and coping with the changing rules about the detainees' rights in U.S. courts. And the FBI was dealing with its own set of civil liberties issues, as the public questioned the bureau's use of national security letters for collecting information on thousands of U.S. citizens and legal residents from banks and credit card, telephone and Internet companies without a court's approval.

Pistole managed the FBI during some of its most stressful hours toward the end of his tenure. There was the so-called underwear bombing attempt on a jetliner as it approached Detroit on Christmas 2009. The FBI built its case against the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, while fending off criticisms that the FBI shouldn't have read the young Nigerian man his rights.

Through it all, Pistole was, "always calm and collected and professional and even-tempered," said Michael Rolince, a 31-year FBI agent and former head of the bureau's Washington field office's counterterrorism division. "Right up until the day John Pistole left, you would think that he had a job with as much pressure as a lifeguard."

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Pistole said he starts each morning with prayer and meditation and squeezes in a workout before he starts his work day. The father of two college-age daughters teaches an adult Bible study group in his free time with his wife of 32 years. He said he often turns to God when faced with tough decisions. One of his favorite authors is C.S. Lewis, and he recently re-read the book, "Mere Christianity."

"He is very calm, but he's also very thoughtful, measured and very determined in what he wants to accomplish," said John Brennan, President Barack Obama's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.

In the spring of 2010, Pistole was tapped to run the TSA. He was Obama's third choice to head an agency that had been without a permanent administrator since the beginning of his administration.

Pistole's first thought was, "That sounds like a thankless job."

Pistole said he warmed to the idea. He sailed through confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill — the previous two nominees withdrew from consideration over concerns by lawmakers about ethics issues.

"He is a multidimensional player," Brennan said. "He knows what intelligence can bring to bear on these issues."

Recalling a briefing with Obama on the threats to mass transportation, Brennan said Pistole's command of facts was impressive. "He brought to bear not just insights and experience but also data," Brennan said. "The president is always impressed when someone has those facts and figures at their fingertips."

Last year when intelligence officials were concerned about al-Qaida threats to Europe, Brennan said Pistole reached out internationally, employing personal connections from years of working in the U.S. intelligence community.

"John Pistole doesn't really have to introduce himself to too many people in the security environment," Brennan said. "His Rolodex is legendary."

One of Pistole's first orders as head of TSA was to develop a new, enhanced airport security pat-down that could give screeners a better shot at detecting a well-hidden explosive on a suicide bomber. In doing so, he waded immediately into the TSA's 9-year-old tug-of-war between security and civil liberties. In August of last year, Pistole himself was patted down.

"I had a pretty good sense that it would not be wildly popular with most people," he said.

And how.

Travelers and privacy advocates were outraged by the intrusive pat-downs, which were used even on children and the elderly who do not appear to be terror threats. Pistole heard the cries for common sense, and he instructed screeners to use pat-downs on children only as a last resort. He is also testing a new screening system based on intelligence files that could speed up the screening process for travelers who volunteer personal information and who are vetted by intelligence officials.

Pistole said he's learned how important it is to have the public on TSA's side.

"The lines at the airport are John's to deal with," said Rolince, Pistole's former FBI colleague. "And much like the (FBI) and the CIA and elsewhere, nobody wants to hear that it went right, because it's supposed to go right."

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Last fall, the U.S. thwarted a terror plot when al-Qaida operatives in Yemen concealed explosives in printers and shipped them to the U.S. It was the first significant plot for Pistole as TSA chief. He often cites details about the attempt in his speeches, highlighting the measures terrorists will take and how inexpensively it can cost to do so (just $4,200, the terrorists boasted afterward). That plot was ultimately foiled because of intelligence provided to the U.S. by Saudi Arabia.

Now, the longtime FBI agent, who considers his arrest of the Genovese crime family boss in New York in 1990 as a defining moment in his career, is the security chief working on a complex system to keep travelers safe without significantly slowing them down.

"Intelligence is our best asset," he said.

And this is why every weekday, dozens of senior transportation security intelligence officials will again file into a windowless room, and Pistole will take his seat at the head of the table.