Pistole Set for Soft Landing as TSA Chief

"Third time’s the charm," as Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said when arriving at the end of Thursday’s confirmation hearing for FBI Deputy Director John Pistole to become administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

And so it seems that Pistole–the White House’s third nominee to lead TSA–is on his way to receiving a confirmation vote by the Senate before Congress departs on its Independence Day recess, as Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, predicted at the hearing.

Pistole certainly impressed the two senators–plus Susan Collins (R-Maine)–who asked questions about collective bargaining, intelligence, mass transit, and other topics. Pistole dazzled with every reply.

Describing his top priorities should he become TSA administrator, Pistole said he would ensure TSA has the latest intelligence to inform TSA officers in carrying out their duties. He would push threat and risk-based information to them on a daily and even hourly basis.

Acknowledging that TSA "is one component in a larger continuum," Pistole pointed to the arrest of Najibullah Zazi in Colorado last September as the sort of success he would like to see rather than catching suspected terrorists at screening checkpoints.

In cases such as Zazi, agencies are informed byintelligence on the front-end, hopefully disrupting plots before they reach checkpoints, Pistole said. Zazi is suspected of committing crimes in a plot to blow up mass transit in New York City.

With regard to intelligence, Pistole said he would work to ensure the accuracy of terrorist watchlists. Lieberman brought up a favorite idea–the secondary screening of everyone in the Terrorist Screening Database rather than a shorter selectee list generated for TSA. But Pistole was more discriminating.

Pistole advocated identifying the specific information on each individual in the database, collecting at least a full name and a "plus one" identifier of information to cut down on false positives.

The database also should have a requirement to contain derogatory information on suspected or known terrorists to eliminate reports that may be generated from individuals with a grudge–such as jilted lovers or failed business partners, Pistole said.

Pistole also indicated he would look at workforce development to ensure TSA personnel have the best tools, techniques, training, and technology to do the best job possible.

In response to a question from Lieberman, Pistole revealed he would like to spend a day or two doing the jobs that others do in TSA, such as serving as a transportation security officer (TSO) in a busy airport.

"If confirmed, I plan to spend some time doing those jobs to gain a first-hand experience on the frontlines and to be fully informed," Pistole stated.

Pistole stressed he would not ignore other forms of transportation in favor of aviation. Since the passenger rail attack in Madrid in 2004, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have demonstrated a continued interest in attacking soft targets like rail systems–which they did in London, Mumbia, and Moscow, Pistole said.

If confirmed, Pistole would conduct a comprehensive rail and mass transit threat assessment and allocate TSA resources based on findings of risk.

Pistole vowed to conduct thorough testing of screening technologies to ensure they work before massive investments are made in them, agreeing with Collins that the explosive trace detectors or "puffer machines" tested a few years ago were a failure.

He again agreed that the whole body imaging devices represented one of the most promising technologies for checkpoint screening today but promised to ensure they worked as effectively as advertised.

Collins pressed Pistole on the issue of collective bargaining, arguing TSA has an important power to shift resources and deploy people quickly.

TSA used this authority in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in response to the 2005 liquid explosives plot that originated in the United Kingdom, and after the blizzard of December 2006 in the US northeast.

Collective bargaining would have imperiled those responses if TSA management had to get a union’s permission to enact such changes every time, Collins said.

As an alternative, TSA employees could use a different process for appealing adverse actions by management. For example, they could go to the MeritSystems Protection Board, which could hear their grievances and rule on adverse actions, Collins suggested.

Pistole repeated that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asked him to review the issue should he receive confirmation.

"I need to obtain more information and hear what all of the issues are to make that assessment," Pistole testified. "I am focused on and will continue to focus on the security of the American people to make sure they are not adversely affected by anything that would come out of that review."

Collins noted the FBI does not have collective bargaining among its employees and that President Barack Obama must have understood the importance of such a point of view when nominating Pistole to lead TSA.

Nevertheless, Collins was largely satisfied with Pistole’s response, apparently boosting him over another hurdle on the road to confirmation.

Should both the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Commerce Committee vote him out of their committees by next week–and both indicated they would–Pistole could easily receive his confirmation vote the following week and before July 4.

That would give TSA a true reason to celebrate the holiday.

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