The Washington Post

Head of TSA emphasizes vision

Correction: Earlier versions of this column, including in Wednesday’s print editon of The Washington Post, should have included air marshals along with transportation security officers in John Pistole’s description of TSA employees who are the “last line of defense.”


John Pistole has a vision for the Transportation Security Administration and its employees. But weird things keep obstructing the view.

Pistole is administrator of the TSA, where transportation security officers who screen passengers and baggage at the nation’s airports recently voted to join the American Federation of Government Employees.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

It’s also the place where TSOs have come under criticism for following procedures that might seem silly, yet are designed to keep us safe, and making silly mistakes that could compromise safety.

Pistole defines his vision with three cornerstones — redefining the mission of TSA as a national security counterterrorism agency, supporting the workforce and engaging outside stakeholders.

He emphasized his agency’s role in an air safety national security continuum that includes foreign intelligence, federal and local law enforcement and the public. At the end of that continuum are the air marshals and TSOs, he said: “We are really the last line of defense.”

Pistole wants to ease the cumbersome passenger screening process by promoting trusted-traveler programs that would allow officers a stronger focus on more likely risks. “We’re undertaking a major redefining of the agency mission and the way we execute on that mission,” he told the Federal Diary on Tuesday.

The security officers, of course, will be a major part of that process. But the agency has a bad reputation for low employee morale. Any manager will tell you that’s not good for implementing an ambitious agenda that’s designed to sharpen the agency’s standing as a key player on the nation’s counterterrorism team.

Publicity over the 95-year-old woman in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., who had to remove her diaper to get through security for a June 18 flight to Detroit also doesn’t help morale or the image of the agency and its workers.

Nor does the case of the man who flew from New York City to Los Angeles a week later with an invalid boarding pass.

In Florida, the officers apparently were following procedure, however repugnant it might be. In the second case, the officers, and the Virgin America ground staff, really screwed up. Pistole said the officer who didn’t catch the invalid boarding pass has been taken off the line for remedial training.

The publicity surrounding both cases can’t help morale at an agency that has repeatedly scored at or near the bottom in employee surveys. Union President John Gage promised that morale would improve once the officers were able to choose a union and negotiate a contract.

Pistole said he expects unionization will lead to “greater uniformity and consistency” within the agency’s workforce and with that, “I hope it would only improve the experience the traveling public has.”

He expects coupling greater consistency with the redefinition of the agency’s mission to improve employee morale. Building morale was a key reason Pistole gave for allowing collective bargaining by TSOs, a decision Capitol Hill Republicans continue to harshly criticize.

“Data from employee surveys has repeatedly shown TSA ranking poorly in terms of employee morale and engagement. Employee engagement and security are interrelated and therefore directly affect our capacity to carry out our mission,” Pistole wrote in his February decision to allow collective bargaining. “We must ensure that our TSOs are motivated and engaged as their judgment and discretionary effort are critical to achieving superior security. We must and will continue to do better with and by our employees to ensure we continue to accomplish our mission.”

With TSA approaching its 10th anniversary in November, Pistole said: “I see collective bargaining as being one of the pillars that will help move the agency” into its next decade.

By supporting the employees and with their support, Pistole envisions a time not too far away when security officers can spend more of their time looking at people who might pose greater risk and less time on those who have been pre-screened, as is the case with the crewmember identity verification system the agency is testing.

Part of that includes better training in behavioral detection for officers whose job it is to spot suspicious people by the way they act.

Pistole wants all the officers to “focus on what we’re really paid to do, and that’s be a counterterrorism agency to prevent a terrorist from getting on a plane and blowing it up. . . . I think we can go about doing this in a smarter, more efficient way using more common sense and then focusing on those threats that are most critical to our national security.”

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @joedavidsonwp



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