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'We'll Never Eliminate Risk,' Admits TSA Chief

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In what is by far the most substantive and insightful interview TSA chief John Pistole has given recently, the embattled FBI veteran opens up, finally, about the limitations and challenges facing his agency. Speaking to the Atlantic's James Fallows and Jeffrey Goldberg, Pistole talks about the pros and cons of profiling, the reasons he thinks the TSA needs to "address yesterday's threats," and concedes "the next attack is inevitable."

It's a long interview and I strongly suggest reading it, especially if you are at all concerned about airport security and the recent controversy related to privacy issues. You may not agree with Pistole's choices or justifications (I don't, on most counts), but this is the closest I've seen anyone come to getting relatively straightforward explanations for why the TSA does what it does.

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Some highlights:

On passengers' fourth amendment rights (protection from unreasonable search and seizure):

Question: "Do you agree with the civil libertarian view that airports ... have become these Fourth Amendment-free zones? This is the fundamental concern, that you're giving up your Fourth Amendment rights when you buy a ticket."

Answer: "I don't agree with that. But I do agree with the difference between what most people think of in terms of a reasonable search-and-seizure for purposes of law enforcement, versus a public-safety administrative search. I don't know if people are drawing that distinction, either, from a legal standpoint or a practical application. I think people don't look at the public safety aspect. They look at it strictly from ... a law enforcement search perspective, in which I need probable cause, and I've got to be reasonable in that search."

Later, Pistole added, "If people take an affirmative act of engaging in, in this case, aviation—they want to get on a plane—they're taking an affirmative act to do that. Then, yes, there is authority to do the administrative search for public safety purposes. As I've said a number of times, I think reasonable people could disagree as to the precise technique used on each person."

On profiling, and whether or not the TSA will emphasize behavioral profiling in the future:

"I'm much more interested in the person than the items the person is carrying. I want to know more about that person, and I want to be able to use all available intelligence, and 'Secure Flight,' which we just completed in terms of the international roll out, is one step in that regard. Just those three basic data fields [required by 'Secure Flight']—name, date of birth, and gender—helps knowing about the person.

"... I think it's possible [to adopt an Israeli-style profiling/interrogation approach in the U.S.], I think it would require a different construct, both for TSA and the airlines. We would require a different workforce. So I wouldn't want to do it the way we're presently configured or employed. But yes, I'm a big proponent of behavior detection.

"We've got several thousand behavioral detection officers [BDOs] who are in the airports, and looking at things. I especially like when we do what we call 'plays.' We have a canine team walk through a terminal with plainclothes behavior detection officers following, to see how people respond to the canine team. I would have loved to be in Amsterdam airport last Christmas. If there had been a canine team and Abdelmutallab was transferring from his flight, to see how he would respond to a canine team. That's the sort of thing that the BDOs are looking for."

On the inherent impossibility of guaranteeing 100 percent safety:

"And we're not in the risk-elimination business, we're in risk mitigation, informed by the latest intelligence, informed by our friends [in the intelligence agencies], and informed by the results of our covert testing ... The only way you can eliminate car accidents from happening is by not driving. OK, that's not acceptable. The only way you can eliminate the risk of planes blowing up is nobody flies."

"If I'm drawing a map, look where TSA is on the continuum. We've got NSA, CIA, then foreign intel services, law enforcement services overseas, foreign agencies ... Let's say somebody gets through all these defenses. ... They get through our terrorism task forces, 103 of those around the country, and let's say they don't identify anybody. The 750,000-plus police officers, sheriffs, deputies, they don't identify anybody. The concerned public, nobody sees something and says something. They get through all these layers of security, then it comes down really just to the TSA.

"So if they get through all those defenses, they get to Reagan [National Airport] over here, and they've got an underwear bomb, they got a body cavity bomb—what's reasonable to expect TSA to do? Hopefully our behavior detection people will see somebody sweating, or they're dancing on their shoes or something, or they're fiddling with something. Our explosives specialists, they'll do something - they do hand swabs at random, unpredictably. If that doesn't work then they go through (the enhanced scanner). And these machines give the best opportunity to detect a non-metallic device, but they're not foolproof."

Readers, what do you think about what Pistole had to say? Do you feel differently about the TSA's methods? Do you at least understand them a bit more?

Read comments or add your own insight!
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