The security week that was: 06/25/10 (TSA's John Pistole)

Pistole confirmed; TSA finds leadership

It has been a ship without a rudder, a plane without a pilot, but today the Transportation Security Administration came under new leadership with the confirmation of John Pistole as TSA administrator. Pistole, who previously served as deputy director at the FBI, has apparently been welcomed aboard by both Democratic and Republican senators, and was confirmed by a voice vote in the Senate late this morning. The position had been vacant since Kip Hawley vacated the top post in January 2009; it had been filled by an acting administrator, Gale Rossides, but no major initiatives were made during that 1-1/2 year period, causing many in the industry and on Washington to feel that the TSA was lacking from direction.

Unionization issues plagued prior nominee Erroll Southers who was blocked by the work of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. Another nominee, Maj. Gen. Robert Harding, withdrew his nomination before he could even be grilled. Already since the Senate confirmation of Pistole as TSA Adminstrator, the unions (NTEU and the American Federation of Government Employees) are busily issuing press releases congratulating Pistole and attempting to gain favor for collective bargaining. It’s a fine point: Unionization was already allowed, but collective bargaining was not – a position that made TSA-employee unionization inside the AFGE and NTEU devoid of any real value.

So, what are some of the issues Pistole will face as head of the TSA?

First, there’s the aforementioned issue of collective bargaining. The unions seem determined to push this issue to the forefront, and our senators and representatives seem to be taking their cues from the unions. It’s a security issue. The concern is whether collective bargaining would weaken the TSA’s strength and show of force. I won’t go over all the reasons, but if you want to delve deeper into possible negatives, just Google Jim DeMint and look for his comments, especially during the hearings when Southers was the nominee.

Second is intelligence sharing. While the Senate was focused on unions, I think that’s the least of TSA’s worries. What is a bigger worry? How about that the Times Square bomber managed to board a plane in an attempt to flee the country after his failed bombing attempt. Or go back to Christmas Day, when another failed bombing almost brought down a plane in-bound to Detroit! There was also intelligence – which didn’t fall into the correct hands – that could have blocked that bomber from flying to the U.S. My personal opinion is that Pistole’s background in the FBI may lead to cross-agency intelligence sharing – let’s hope that is not simply wishful thinking.

A third topic is the Registered Traveler Program. Clear’s VIP (verified identity pass) program is back in action after bankruptcy; this is the privatized effort to pre-screen frequent fliers for faster trips through the security queues. An aviation consultant (who asked to remain anonymous) tells me, “Registered Traveler is back…It's going to be different this time and most likely be interoperable with some government programs.” Pistole will have to wrestle with this privatization concern.

Technology is also on the list. We still take off our shoes because shoe scanners haven’t been approved (word on the street is that the approval hasn’t come because the systems don’t work consistently). Other technologies like “puffer” machines, which used puffs of air to dislodge particles and then test for explosives residue, have been dropped from TSA’s usage at checkpoints. The puffers were part of a lengthy pilot project test and were simply deemed unreliable for regular usage. Now, we’ve seen DHS’s Napolitano push for the use of imaging technologies that can see through clothes to spot threats hidden beneath passengers’ clothing. Some of this usage was prompted by the Christmas Day bomber. But with that technology, Pistole is going to have to deal with the concerns of staunch privacy advocates. He’d also be well-advised to look at video surveillance implementations, especially after an incident in January at Newark demonstrated the lack of oversight and redundancy in a TSA-operated video surveillance system.

Pistole is going to have to deal with the Watch List. There are two problems. First, it’s not being properly administered such that persons of interest who should be on it are always on it and that it is being put in use (reference the Christmas Day bombing or the Times Square bombing suspect. Secondly, there is a problem that people who shouldn’t be on it can’t be guaranteed of having themselves removed from it. Clearly, the point is to err on the cautious side by keeping people on it until it’s crystal clear they shouldn’t, but that’s little comfort to people like the 8-year-old Cub Scout who ended up on the list.

The indications so far from industry insiders and by way of the unilateral support in the Senate is that Pistole is competent to handle these issues. On behalf of the security industry, let’s extend a warm welcome to new TSA Administrator John Pistole, especially because his leadership affects our industry directly.

***For more on aviation security, you can watch the archived version of yesterday’s webinar on airport security contracting best practices. The program featured PDX’s John Dean former DEN security chief Lori Beckman.