FBI Deputy Director John Pistole impressed members of the Senate Commerce Committee in his first of two confirmation hearings Thursday with his knowledge and experience with terrorism concerns in his bid to become administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
His long career at the FBI left such a positive impression on lawmakers that even Republicans seeking an outright declaration of opposition to collective bargaining rights for TSA screeners–which they did not receive–were left acknowledging they would support his nomination.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who derailed the nomination of Obama’s first pick to become TSA chief earlier this year over the issue of collective bargaining, again raised it Thursday.
DeMint insisted that officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must question how collective bargaining rights for TSA screeners would improve security. He was unsatisfied with an earlier reply from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that security and collective bargaining weren’t mutually exclusive.
"When the secretary of homeland security can’t tell us how something would improve security, it should stop us in our tracks," DeMint protested.
Collective bargaining for TSA screeners "would have a direct negative impact on security" by applying a 19th century industrial era modelto a 21st century information age environment, DeMint argued. Transportation security officers (TSOs) could jeopardize national security if they demanded changes in their workplace, through the use of collective bargaining, that restricted rapid redeployment or changes in work schedules due to threat information, he said.
Pistole acknowledged that Napolitano asked him to conduct a review of the issue if he is confirmed. That review would involve collecting as much information as possible from relevant stakeholders to make an informed judgment or recommendations.
As the FBI has no unions or collective bargaining rights, Pistole emphasized that he was "attuned to safety and security issues" as a priority.
DeMint warned Pistole that he would face intense political pressure to grant collective bargaining rights to TSOs. While DeMint endorsed Pistole’s credentials to lead TSA, the senator said he would question his competence if he caved to that pressure.
"If we see you yielding to political pressure, that would suggest to us that priorities have changed," DeMint stated.
DeMint was visibly disappointed by Pistole’s position on the issue, however.
Although Pistole said collective bargaining would not work at the FBI because it would impair the agency’s ability to surge resources and to deploy people worldwide at a moment’s notice, he could not commit to the same status at TSA because he had not yet conducted his review of the issue.
Lacking a firsthand knowledge of how TSA managers work together, Pistole could not say for certain if TSA would benefit from a third party such as a union facilitating discussions. He also declined to promise that his review of collective bargaining would be made available to the committee.
Despite those positions, DeMint conceded, "I will trust your judgment until proven otherwise."
If confirmed, Pistole said he would immediately examine intelligence to assess soft targets that may provide attractive opportunities to al Qaeda and other terrorists seeking to strike the United States.
Successful attacks in Europe and India against rail networks and a thwarted plan to attack the subway system in New York City have demonstrated terrorist interest in hitting passenger rail systems because they are not protected as well as airports, Pistole said.
Security at general aviation airports also requires a second look, Pistole said, as the spring attack on a federal building in Austin, Texas, underscored the vulnerabilities involved with privately owned aircraft. Fiscal restraint may restrict how much attention those airports receive from TSA, however, he said.
As for aviation security, Pistole vowed to be guided by threat information to ensure the best use of the "latest intelligence, latest training, latest techniques, and latest technology" at TSA.
To that end, Pistole endorsed the use of advanced imaging technology (AIT) at US airports, saying it was the best means to detect the sort of sophisticated explosive carried by suspected Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Pistole provided some of the most detailed public comments to date on the bomb allegedly carried by Abdulmutallab, noting that it used an initiating charge of acetone peroxide (TAPT) with a main charge of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN).
PETN also was the explosive used by shoe bomber Richard Reid in his attack on a US-bound airliner in December 2001, Pistole noted, but Abdulmutallab carried almost twice as much PETN as Reid did.
Reid’s PETN would have caused a manhole-size hole in the airplane had it detonated, so Abdulmutallab’s charge "would have caused catastrophic damage" to Northwest Airlines Flight 253 had it worked, Pistole noted.
Given the level of the threat, TSA must continue its rollout plan of AIT and strive to engage foreign partners to adopt standards similar or better to the United States for aviation screening, Pistole said.
Pistole identified his top priority at TSA as making certain that TSA has the latest intelligence and threat information. The major failing of the Christmas Day bombing attempt was that information sharing did not occur in a fashion timely or robust enough to trigger a visa revocation or watchlisting for Abdulmutallab, he commented.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the committee, predicted that Pistole would receive Senate confirmation as early as next week in a vote to occur after his second confirmation hearing June 16 with the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Soon after, Rockefeller revealed, the Commerce Committee will unveil a TSA authorization bill as well as a port security bill, both of which will have a great deal of impact on TSA operations.