John Pistole discusses new role as Transportation Security Administration chief

By Joe Davidson
Friday, August 13, 2010

John Pistole.

Good name for a lawman. Conjures up images of Wyatt Earp and Matt Dillon.

But this Pistole is no gunslinger, though the 26-year FBI veteran probably knows how to handle one well. In his new role as administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, Pistole runs an agency best known to the public for its airport baggage screeners. Agency workers don't tote guns, but Pistole has been thinking about a plan that would create a new contingent of TSA law enforcement officers.

Pistole spoke with the Federal Diary about his new gig after his first "40 days and 40 nights" on the job, as he put it. That brings to mind the troubles of another transportation administrator, but Noah had divine help with his problems.

TSA is known as a pit of low morale and is the target of union efforts to win collective-bargaining rights for about 50,000 transportation security officers. It ranked 213 out of 216 federal agencies in the 2009 Best Places to Work listing compiled by the Partnership for Public Service.

Pistole outlined three priorities: improving TSA's counterterrorism mission "through intelligence and cutting-edge technology," supporting the agency's workforce and engaging its customers, "especially the traveling public."

A big part of his job is keeping airplanes safe from those who would use them as weapons of mass destruction. He said some airports now use "bottle liquid scanners" that let passengers onboard with medically necessary liquids in amounts greater than the three-ounce restriction on other fluids.

Agency officials have discussed enhancing air travel protection by creating a small corps of TSOs who would be considered law enforcement officers. Currently, screeners do not have that status, so they don't carry weapons and have no arrest authority.

"It would be a force multiplier, not designed to replace airport law enforcement authority but to supplement those as appropriate," Pistole said.

This plan is not completely baked and not all of its ingredients are fully known, even to Pistole. "Administrator Pistole is looking at numerous ideas and considerations to . . . ensure the safety of the traveling public as his work at TSA gets underway," said Kristin Lee, a TSA spokeswoman.

A proposal to create a TSA law enforcement corps probably would not come before the fiscal 2012 budget request.

Regarding particulars such as whether TSA law enforcement officers would come from the current ranks of TSOs or would be recruited from police agencies, Pistole said: "Those details are currently being worked out, but I like the idea of having those who have experience in this business. But I'm looking at all the options."

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