John Pistole knows that most people like the Transportation Security Administration which provides security at 450 of the nations airports about as much as the Internal Revenue Service or Department of Motor Vehicles.
Hes hoping to change that.
Created after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the TSA has spent billions of dollars on security, hiring some 48,000 federal workers and overhauling checkpoints. But much of the traveling public grew to resent the agency as security lines got longer, pat-downs turned more invasive and full-body X-ray machines exposed travelers like never before.
If this was zero, where everyone hates TSA, and this is 100 percent, I think weve moved off zero and I think we are making progress, said Pistole, holding his hands apart to show the distance. Its not a short term, not an overnight fix.
He was in Charlotte on Thursday to meet with business leaders and media to discuss the agencys plans for making screening more efficient and less onerous.
To do that, Pistole said the agency will expand its Pre-Check program this year. Currently available only to elite-level fliers by invitation, the program allows approved pre-screened passengers to keep their shoes and jackets on, and leave laptops in their luggage before passing through metal detectors.
Pistole said the TSA doesnt disclose exactly how travelers can get into the Pre-Check program, to avoid helping terrorists game the system. He said the agencys goal is to allow people besides elite fliers to apply to join the Pre-Check program soon.
Its part of the TSAs turn to more risk-based strategies, moving away from screening everyone exactly the same. The agency is using more behavior detection strategies, with officers scrutinizing passengers for signs theyre planning something. That strategy has its own pitfalls, however: The TSA has been accused of racial profiling passengers at Bostons airport. Pistole said officers have been retrained, and that standards are in place to prevent arbitrary profiling.
Pistole said he has increased the agencys standards for agents since he took over in 2010, creating standardized punishments for agents and implementing a zero-tolerance policy for offenses such as theft.
Theres uniformity and consistency across the country, said Pistole. There was no standard set of penalties so it was pretty much ad hoc depending how the local head of the office thought it should be handled.
He said the agency has started doing random integrity testing, leaving money and valuables at checkpoints, to see if TSA employees turn them in to lost and found. Out of 10 airports tested so far, Pistole said all items have been returned. If one person steals, it gives the entire agency a black eye, he said.
Pistole said terrorists are still trying to bring down planes, and complacency is a concern. Although there hasnt been a successful attack on a U.S. airliner since 2001, he points to a range of near-misses: The Shoe Bomber in 2001, the Underwear Bomber on Christmas Day 2009, and bombs packed in toner cartridges shipped from Yemen. Those toner bombs were intercepted by the CIA before they made it onto U.S.-bound passenger flights.
Maintaining public awareness of threats is a balancing act, however, Pistole said. He showed Charlotte Chamber officials a video of a powerful liquid bomb to demonstrate the danger of liquid explosives.
I cant really do that publicly, because that would scare people, Pistole said. We dont want to keep people from flying.