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John Pistole discusses new role as Transportation Security Administration chief

By Joe Davidson
Friday, August 13, 2010; B03

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."

Pistole has spent his first weeks in office gathering information from employees in town hall-style meetings and talking to a variety of people who have a stake in what the TSA does. He will meet next week with the presidents of the largest federal employee unions: the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU).

"Collective bargaining is at the top of the agenda," said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley. "I am very optimistic and hopeful that after he does his assessment, he will find there is no reason to deny these workers the rights they should have had long ago."

During his confirmation hearings, Pistole was noncommittal on collective-bargaining rights, saying he would conduct an independent assessment after taking office. That review is underway and TSA has hired the Restructuring Associates consulting firm to assist with it.

Given President Obama's support for collective bargaining, it could be difficult for Pistole to come down against it. In a letter to AFGE President John Gage during the presidential campaign, Obama said advocating for screeners "to receive collective-bargaining rights and workplace protections will be a priority for my administration."

Pistole promised "an honest, independent assessment."

Republicans have pressed Pistole to reject collective bargaining. Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) told him it would "significantly undermine TSA's ability to respond to threats and protect the nation." Pistole didn't agree, but to the dismay of union leaders he told DeMint that collective bargaining at the FBI would not improve national security. Asked whether he could see any scenario where collective bargaining for TSOs would hurt national security, he demurred: "I don't feel like I have enough information to make that judgment."

At next week's meeting with Pistole, Gage said, "I would gently want to correct him" by reminding Pistole of the many police agencies, including those at the federal level, that have collective-bargaining rights. One thing that really steams Gage and Kelley is any suggestion that securing full collective-

bargaining rights for TSOs would in any way impede national security.

Despite the administrator's comment to DeMint, the union leaders have been encouraged by Pistole's performance. Because the agency had only an acting administrator for 18 months, "I know that everyone is pleased that he is here," Kelley said.

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