When you are at the forefront of the war on terrorism, all sorts of things can cause sleepless nights:
Can 275 direct daily flights to the United States be protected from the bomb-building masterminds of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? Have the unarmed airport security officers become targets for random attacks? If a truck bomb explodes in the Holland Tunnel, how much of Manhattan will flood?
But when you are the president of a small Christian college in Indiana, the stress level is a bit lower.
John S. Pistole, 58, the former FBI agent who has run the Transportation Security Administration since 2010 is making the switch to a job for which he jokes he is not thoroughly qualified.
He’s not one to bail out in the waning hours of a lame-duck administration. But then Anderson University called to ask him to become the school’s fifth president in almost 100 years.
“They said, ‘Would you be willing to consider that,’ and I got up off the floor and said, ‘You sure you have the right person here?’ ” he said Monday. He turned to ask his wife. “She said, ‘Anyway, you’re not qualified, right?’ I said, ‘No, of course not.’ ”
But when asked whether he was burned out by the TSA job, he responds with an emphatic no.
He had risen to deputy director of the FBI when the White House called. Pistole is one of the most self-effacing power people in a capital city driven by lust for power, claiming he got to be No. 2 at the bureau mostly because four people ahead of him retired.
Pistole had just settled into the TSA job in 2010 when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tried to slip two bombs disguised as printer-toner cartridges onto flights to the United States. Just weeks after that, he was summoned to Capital Hill for the first of several public floggings over new body scanners and the frisking of passengers at airport security.
At a congressional hearing, he said that if people planned to fly, they had to submit to the procedures. But this week, he said he really did not take issue with the outrage on the Hill.
“I can’t fault them,” he said in an interview at TSA’s headquarters in Arlington, “because of the things we were doing, patting down a 95-year-old great-grandmother in a wheelchair with cancer, and a 3-year-old child going to Disney with a teddy bear taken away. I was not happy with that either, and that was one of the driving impetuses for changing from one size fits all.”
On Pistole’s watch, TSA transformed into more of a risk-based intelligence-gathering organization that strives to intercept terrorists before they can act.
More than half of the people passing through domestic airports get expedited screening through a series of exemptions, notably TSA’s PreCheck program that allows passengers who have submitted background information in advance to move more swiftly through checkpoints.
Complaints are down 25 percent from last year, Pistole said, and TSA is operating with 5,000 fewer security officers.
“We’ve just become more efficient and at least as good,” he said.
If travel has been simplified, the range of threats Pistole sees has become more complex.
“There’s so many players out there that want to attack the U.S. and aviation is still one of those gold-standard targets, so the threat has evolved,” he said. “If the terrorist can exploit just one location on one day, that person can be on a flight to the U.S. and have a shot at blowing up the plane.”
He plans to spend two months decompressing before heading for Indiana, where his walk to the office will take less than five minutes.
“I won’t miss the [Washington] traffic. I won’t miss a lot of the political issues. My new board of trustees is 32 members, instead of the 535 [members of Congress] who are all subject-matter experts,” he said.
Why the pull to Anderson?
“I grew up a block and a half from campus, my dad was a professor there, my sister was a professor there, all six of us in the family went there, I met my wife there 40 years ago as a freshman, she married me five years later,” he said.
“And the Indianapolis Colts, which are my favorite NFL team, practice at Anderson University,” he said. “That’s their training camp.”