Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda remain fixated on U.S. airlines and continue to hone their bomb-making skills, according to the departing chief of the agency charged with protecting transportation.
John Pistole, outgoing head of the Transportation Security Administration and soon-to-be president of Anderson University in Indiana, said the greatest threat to national security is still someone slipping a bomb onto a plane bound for the United States.
Despite more than 13 years since the last successful terrorist attack on a U.S. aircraft—the hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001—“the threats continue,” Pistole, 58, said in an interview at the agency’s Arlington, Virgina, office. “They are persistent. The terrorists are innovative in their design, construction and concealment of devices.”
The TSA, most known for its airport passenger screenings, has become more adept at intelligence gathering, adding layers of protection and focusing resources on the highest risk travelers, Pistole said. His four-year tenure included a move to split the flying public into groups that get traditional screening and those who opt for an advance background check so they get a less-intrusive examination at the airport.
Pistole, who will leave the TSA at the end of the year to lead Anderson University, has faced controversy. Civil rights groups objected to aggressive patdowns ordered in 2010, and he had to reverse a decision last year to allow pocket knives in airplane cabins after flight attendants and members of Congress questioned the policy change, citing still-fresh memories of Sept. 11.
During his tenure, at least two attempted attacks were foiled: a 2010 plot to hide bombs in computer printers sent as cargo and a 2012 scheme to smuggle a bomb aboard an airliner. Both were thwarted before they could be carried out as a result of intelligence.
“Aviation just seems to be the gold standard for them,” Pistole said of terror groups mainly based in the Middle East. “That’s what they want to focus on.”
The event during his tenure that troubles him most was the Nov. 1, 2013, shooting at Los Angeles International Airport when a gunman killed a TSA officer, Gerardo Hernandez, and wounded others.
“Just the fact that somebody would specifically target a TSA employee, shoot and kill that person in cold blood, just shoot them in the back and then target other TSA employees,” he said. “I think that was just a very sad day.”
Pistole said security has improved during his tenure because the agency has tried to focus resources on the small minority of travelers who pose the greatest risk. The agency has enrolled 750,000 people in PreCheck, its trusted-traveler program. It entitles travelers to streamlined screening, such as keeping shoes and jackets on and leaving laptops in cases.
Cooperation from other nations’ intelligence agencies, airports and airlines have also led to improvements, he said.
Pistole’s 2013 decision to lift the ban on knives is one action for which he wishes he had done a more thorough review.
While he discussed the decision with officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TSA, he didn’t present it to his own agency’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee. The ASAC, which reviews policy issues, hadn’t been meeting, he said.
“That was a good lesson learned for me,” he said. “I could have done a better job with that.”