There’s a Lincolnesque quality surrounding John Pistole that transcends the obvious tall and lanky physique. Just a couple of minutes of conversation hints at the confidence of a man anchored in his faith, tuned into the domestic and international issues of our day and keenly aware of the threats –both external and internal – that stand poised at the gate.
Yet, this soft-spoken Midwesterner and son of a university theology professor, has found himself at the center of world-shaping events and political controversy throughout more than three decades of federal government service, running the gamut from heading up the FBI’s counterterrorism division in Washington, D.C., following the 9/11 terror attacks to ascending to deputy director of the FBI before being named administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by President Barack Obama six years later.
And just this past spring, Pistole was among a very short list of candidates to secede FBI Director James Comey, who Donald Trump abruptly terminated as Comey was in the midst of a criminal investigation into the potential collusion of Trump campaign officials with Russian operatives looking to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Opting not to become a player in a political circus, Pistole politely said no thank you and returned to his post as president of Anderson University, his alma mater in the town of the same name just northeast of Indianapolis, where he had been since 2014 after retiring from TSA.
Pistole admits that there is something comforting about the creative freedom of academia after so many years of regimented government service and being cradled in the historic confines of Anderson University, a small Christian college where he has deep roots; a place where both his parents graduated from and several siblings have connections as well. Pistole is a product of his traditional Christian family upbringing and university pedigree that in Anderson terms encourage students to “become stronger in body, mind, and spirit, to experience what it means to love God and neighbor and to adopt a philosophy of servant leadership” for a lifetime.
“I realize some of this might sound a bit hokey now, but these are unwavering values for me and hopefully for those students we lead. I believe that there are five main pillars that should be lived throughout our lifetime: integrity, excellence, servant leadership, responsibility, and generosity,” says Pistole, as he concluded his keynote speech at the first CONSULT 2017, a technical security symposium, exclusively for the security industry’s leading design consultants that was held in San Antonio last month. “Integrity, morals and ethics never go out of style.”
While Pistole deftly avoided any negative assessments of the current administration, he did hint that it’s certainly not business as usual at the White House and that comments directed at the FBI and intelligence community during the campaign and early in the presidency were not productive.
“The unconventional approach to diplomacy and national security has caused a lot of our partners to questions just what is our relationship with the U.S. and left many countries wondering how they work with that in an unpredictable environment,” Pistole offered with a wry smile. “We’ll leave it at that.”
Pistole enjoyed a distinguished career with the FBI, joining the bureau in 1983 before becoming the number two man behind FBI Director Robert Mueller in 2004. In March 2006, the FBI honored Pistole with the 2005 Presidential Rank of Distinguished Executive. He was placed in charge of the FBI’s counterterrorism program, eventually becoming the FBI’s Executive Assistant Director for national security. Since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Pistole contributed to the formation of terrorism policies during both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Pre 9/11, Pistole admits to a siloed approach to national security when it came to information sharing between the FBI and other domestic and world intelligence agencies. As a man with his finger on the pulse of international threats, mitigation proved difficult in such an environment. That all changed when the Twin Towers came down in Manhattan in 2001.
“The FBI is under pressure every day to make sure they are well informed by the rest of the intelligence community to ensure they know what the overseas threats are and how they relate to the homeland. I see homeland as being a subset of national security. Not every one of our 325 million citizens here in the U.S. are happy campers as we saw recently with the Las Vegas gunman; for whatever reason, he decided to break bad. If it had been inspired by ISIS, just think about what the response would have been,” says Pistole. “This is just an example of the daily tension the FBI deals with – how do they stay informed and understand what the threats are and how do they mitigate those threats.”
He explains that the FBI’s approach to these threats is guided not as much by the bad guy’s motivation but more from his capabilities. Whether it is a white supremacist or Ayrian Nations, an ISIS-inspired teenager here in the U.S., or a true lone wolf like Eric Rudolph or Ted Kaczynski, Pistole says the FBI must assess who poses the threat presented and mitigate it no matter where the ties lie.
Pistole continues that the FBI’s approach to terror changed radically after the New York and Washington D.C. attacks, shifting from passive to proactive.
“The FBI has been and still is, extremely good at solving crimes after they have been committed. So we were largely a reactive crime-solving agency. But the paradigm shift has come from its transformation to an agency focused on intelligence collection, analysis and sharing as its top priorities. Now the FBI focuses all its national security investigations with all those ideas on how can we collect against requirements the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) sets and how we can then share it on a timely basis, in case someone else in the community knows something we don’t, and use it to prevent an attack,” he says.
This information-centric bureau is something Pistole can’t stress enough, pointing out that it is the key element in stopping hundreds of potentials attacks that are never reported to the nation’s general public.
“Information sharing among agencies has improved dramatically. That was one of the good aspects to come out of the unfortunate events of 9/11; the recognition that we all had to do a better job. There was no one person or agency at fault, but there was this wall when it came to information sharing between law enforcement and the intelligence community. It was Department of Justice policy at that time that said you cannot share. That policy has now been torn down. Nobody wants to be that person that possesses a piece of information that could prevent the next 9/11,” Pistole chides.
Pistole assumed the reins at TSA in 2010 and became the longest-serving director in the agency’s history. He’s not so sure that is a badge of distinction, joking that the qualifications seemed a bit lax. “I went in to interview for the position and everyone in the room looked around at each other and they asked me, ‘You really want this job?’ That sort of worried me, but I told them yes. So they took my pulse and told me congratulations you are now the director of TSA,” chuckled Pistole, showcasing his soft-spoken, self-deprecating humor.
In his role as director of the TSA, Pistole led a 60,000-strong workforce, the security operations of more than 450 airports throughout the United States, the Federal Air Marshal Service, and shared security for highways, railroads, ports, mass transit systems and pipelines. Under his leadership, the TSA worked to transform itself into a risk-based, intelligence-driven counterterrorism agency dedicated to protecting the nation’s transportation systems.
“There is an intentionality of focus on layers of security formed by intelligence – that is the bottom line. Prior to 9/11, the airlines provided the security and we know that they just didn’t do a good job. Now we have, by some counts, 20 different layers of security before someone boards a plane; the most important being the intelligence about that passenger,” Pistole says. “Along with that there are a number of other layers of security that are unseen by the flying public besides intelligence gathering like behavior-detection officers, and plain-clothed officers who walk with them throughout the airport.”
Controversy quickly followed as Pistole initiated new and more stringent security involving the agency’s use of full-body scanners and aggressive pat-down measures to the screening process, all stemming from the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight out of Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the Underwear Bomber. Pistole faced Congress during this turmoil as it questioned the need for such invasive precautions.
Eventually, Pistole’s screening strategies softened a bit and his greatest legacy will be the enhanced professionalism of the TSA field officers and also taking his FBI skillsets and applying them to a more risk-based approach to security.
He says TSA has done a good job at expediting people through the security checkpoints and through the airport’s sensitive areas, but admits there are still some issues with detection capabilities as the terrorists continue to become more sophisticated, saying it’s harder to detect smaller amounts of explosives accurately, on a timely basis and in a passenger-friendly way.
“That stokes that constant tension you have with 2 to 3 million passengers a day – there are just going to be some people who are not happy with the way they were treated. But you have to have personnel that acts in a professional manner, which is one reason I created the TSA Academy. If we are expecting professional behavior from (TSA) people then we have to train them professionally,” Pistole says.
He cites the establishment of TSA Pre-Check and the TSA Academy as two of his most satisfying accomplishments while serving as TSA director.
“Bringing about a new vision, a new paradigm for the workforce that empowered them as perhaps they hadn’t felt previously was a big step. Some had felt like automatons who if they made a questionable action they would be fired. So we wanted to empower the officers to realize we needed their keen observation skills and focus but also your good judgment,” adds Pistole.
About the Author:
Steve Lasky is the Editorial Director of SouthComm Security Media, which includes print publications Security Technology Executive, Security Dealer & Integrator, Locksmith Ledger Int’l and the world’s top security web portal SecurityInfoWatch.com. He is a 30-year veteran of the security industry and a 26-year member of ASIS.