TSA Administrator Pistole talks with SIW about terrorism prevention

As part of his priorities for the Transportation Security Administration, new agency head John Pistole is soliciting the help of the traveling public in helping to identify suspicious people and packages at transit hubs.

The former FBI deputy director, who was confirmed as the new head of the TSA in June, discussed his agenda for the TSA with SIW on Wednesday. Pistole said he has three goals for the TSA moving forward, which include bolstering counterterrorism efforts through innovations in technology and intelligence, providing additional support to the agency's workforce and actively engaging the public through such initiatives as the "see something, say something" campaign. The campaign, which was launched last month as part of an information sharing partnership with Amtrak, encourages travelers to report any suspicious activity.

"The involvement of the public is critical to government efforts to protect the homeland," he said.

The TSA has been criticized for being overly focused on aviation security, but Pistole says that the agency is aware of the threat that terrorists pose to other forms of transportation.

"We recognize that we need to be strengthening security as it relates to passenger rail, particularly, but also buses, transit and all forms (of transportation) in the non-aviation arena," he said. "There are a number of things that we can do working with state and local authorities, recognizing the TSA, obviously, can't (monitor) all things, all people, all of the time."

Pistole said he sees the TSA at the end of the continuum when it comes to the nation's counterterrorism efforts. If the intelligence and law enforcement community fail to identify potential terrorists ahead of time, then it is up to the TSA, in the form of passenger screening or a federal air marshal, to hopefully prevent them from being able to carry out their plot.

"When it comes to the U.S. government, TSA is at that end of the continuum where we are the last line in a series of layered defenses," Pistole explained.

The TSA administrator added that plans are in the works to expand the "see something, say something" campaign beyond rail and general aviation. The agency is also working in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security to establish phone hotlines that people can use to report a suspicious person or package. Pistole said the TSA will also leverage the existing networks of transit agencies across the country with similar initiatives.

The metrics of measuring the effectiveness of such a campaign, whether it is involves looking at the number of tips received or suspicious packages identified, are limited, according to Pistole. However, when even a single incident such as the attempted Times Square bombing is thwarted, Pistole said an initiative like this can be deemed a success.