TSA's John Pistole on Aviation Security

“We are safer than we've ever been,” Transportation Security Agency Administrator John Pistole told ABC "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran at the Aspen Security Forum, while cautioning that the formula for managing the risk of aerial terror was constantly evolving in a globalized world without a one-size-fits-all description of a terrorist.

With millions of people around the world employed in aviation, it only takes “one weak link to make a problem for all of us,” Pistole said, using the example of an airline employee taking a bribe to waive what they believed to be drugs, but was actually explosives, through security. But Pistole pointed out that there are solutions along with pitfalls in this interconnectedness. “It was outstanding intelligence by the Saudi Mabahith (Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency) that gave us the tracking numbers for the two explosive packages in the 2010 Yemini cargo planes bomb plot,” he said.

When pressed by Moran to explain what role TSA should play in profiling prospective terrorists, Pistole rejected extremes on both ends of the spectrum, advocating for a balanced approach between treating everyone as a potential threat and the strict profiling system used by some countries abroad. “We have progressed with the advent of technology and intelligence to move away from that one-size-fits-all construct that was necessary right after 9/11,” he said, citing recent moves by the agency to expedite screening for passengers under 12 and over 75, as well as members of the military. But when considering implementing profiling in the US, Pistole asked whose standards the profiling should be done by. “Whose profile do we use?” he said. “The Israeli profile?…That model works under Israel's law, but they have 11 million passengers a year, where we have 12 million a week.”

Asked what harbingers of hope he saw for the agency in the coming years, Pistole discussed leadership training courses being developed for TSA employees, and the increased usage of Behavioral Detection Officers. But ultimately, his optimism was tempered with pragmatism— “Our job is to determine how we can best mitigate or manage risk in a collaborative fashion,” he said, “while knowing that we can never completely eliminate it.” 

For more on the Aspen Security Forum: Check out the agenda; view the photo gallery, and follow along live.