Southers Reflects on Elements for Successful TSA Chief Nomination

FBI Deputy Director John Pistole goes up before the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday for the first of two confirmation hearings he will face on the path to become head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Pistole is the third nominee President Barack Obama has put forward for the position. The first, Erroll Southers of the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California (USC), withdrew in January after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) placed a hold on his nomination.

The second, retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding withdrew in March over questions regarding his work as a defense contractor.

Southers, who is a USC homeland security professor and associate director of CREATE, reflected that Pistole could run afoul of the issue that led to DeMint’s hold–granting collective bargaining to TSA screeners.

"I would assume that he would take the position that I took and that General Harding took, which is one of a comprehensive assessment to determine what kind of impact that kind of action would have on the organization and whether or not it would be prudent to make that kind of recommendation to the Secretary or to the President," Southers told

DeMint and other opponents of collective bargaining argue that providing the right to transportation security officers (TSOs) could threaten national security as the TSOs could demand changes in workplace conditions that would make it difficult to change their schedules or deploy them quickly or in different locations to match threat information. Southers took no position on the issue and indeed expressed skepticism over collective bargaining before DeMint’s hold.

Outside the issue of collective bargaining, Southers stressed he would advise any incoming leader of a large organization to focus on three elements of the organization–people, partnerships, and the public.

"I would never profess to suggest how a nominee should proceed," the professor emphasized, but focusing on those elements would lead TSA to success.

First, the people of TSA, regardless of the issue of collective bargaining, need support and opportunities to develop and advance, Southers said.

Second, TSA must foster strong local, state, federal, and international partnerships to accomplish its missions.

"TSA deals with a transnational threat. In that regard, policies need to be harmonized, relationships built, and resources leveraged from all over the globe to make the organization successful at the end of the day," Southers commented.

Finally, TSA must engage the public to educate them and raise awareness as to TSA’s goals and methods.

"In those societies that are more resilient to terrorism like the UK and Israel, people tend to be more supportive when they become part of the system. We could accomplish that if the public is educated about policies, practices, procedures, and changes in those things that are going to affect them as a traveler," noted Southers, who also serves as managing director of counterterrorism and infrastructure protection for international security consulting firm Tal Global Corp.

Obama has consistently chosen TSA candidates for their experience in intelligence, Southers agreed, as opposed to qualifications of former TSA chiefs. For example, Kip Hawley, the last permanent TSA administrator, was valued as an expert on transportation infrastructure and as a top logistician.

But as TSA watchlists and operations have come under increasing scrutiny, TSA would benefit from the intelligence experience that Pistole brings to the table, Southers suggested.

"We will only have a counter-terrorism effort in this country as good as our intelligence capacity to gather information, analyze information, and determine if it is actionable very quickly. That’s going to be the key to success for this country going forward. So I think it’s very important that a person in that position have a very strong intelligence background. It comes as no surprise that the current nominee has strength in that area as well," he remarked.

To that end, the next TSA chief is aided tremendously by a recent milestone achieved by the Secure Flight program, Southers acknowledged. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Monday that TSA was now checking 100 percent of passengers traveling within the United States against terrorist watchlists, having relieved commercial airlines of the responsibility.

Secure Flight directly provides TSA screeners with more information on passengers, including their date of birth, gender, and name as it appears on a government-issued identification.

"At the end of the day, Secure Flight cuts down on the number of people that have to go to the counter to check again and see if they are flagged, if there is a misprint, or if a name has been misread. It gives TSA and the security community the ability to focus on those individuals where there might be a question as opposed to mistakes that are made at the airport," Southers explained.

"Now you have a more efficient use of your staffing resources to address actual threats," he added. "More importantly, you are giving people the opportunity to have a more pleasurable travel experience. It’s really important to understand that security and a positive experience are not diametrically opposed to each other."

Congressional reaction

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, hailed the nomination of Pistole in a statement last month, calling it "good news for America’s national security."

"Mr. Pistole’s two decades of service with the FBI give him a unique perspective on the nexus of security operations, law enforcement and intelligence," Rockefeller said May 17. "I have worked with Mr. Pistole over the years, and I believe he is a strong manager capable of getting the job done. I know he is well regarded in the intelligence and law enforcement communities, and I look forward to working with him. I am committed to working with my fellow Commerce Committee members to move Mr. Pistole’s nomination forward as expeditiously as possible."

Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), ranking member of the committee, was more cautious in her outlook.

"The position of TSA administrator is crucial to America’s transportation security, and [it] has remained vacant for far too long," Hutchison said in a statement. "Our nation wants and needs to have this position filled. This is the third nominee put forward by this Administration, and I will be carefully reviewing his qualifications. Considering the many credible threats across all modes of transportation, there are many challenges ahead for TSA and the American traveling public demands a qualified candidate who can be swiftly confirmed in a bipartisan manner."

If approved by a majority of the commerce committee, Pistole’s nomination would then go to a second confirmation hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, currently scheduled for June 16.

The leaders of the homeland security committee embraced the nominee in their own statements last month.

Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chair of the committee, said, "My initial reaction to the nomination of John Pistole to head TSA is extremely positive. He has a great law enforcement background and understands the threat of terrorism as well as anyone in the government."

Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the committee, also hailed Pistole’s selection.

"I applaud the President’s choice of a career law enforcement official to head the Transportation Security Administration," she said. "I have known John, who currently is the deputy director of the FBI, for many years. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, he has been on the forefront of our nation’s fight against terrorism. While I will withhold my final judgment on this nomination until the committee’s full examination and vetting processes are completed, I am pleased that the President has chosen an individual with such strong law enforcement experience."

Once approved by the homeland security committee, Pistole’s nomination would go before the full Senate for a final confirmation vote.

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