Commerce Committee grills nominee for TSA administrator

This morning, John Pistole faced the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. As expected the Democrats were supportive and friendly and the Republican side focused on the issue of unionization of TSA. This nomination doesn’t appear, however, to have any roadblocks for approval.

From Chairman Rockefeller to Ranking Member Hutchison and from Rep. Begich to Rep. DeMint the praise for Mr. Pistole’s qualifications were uniformly good.

John Pistole has been with the FBI for 26 years. He was the lead agent during the investigation in Boston of the Egypt Air crash. He served as Executive Assistant Director for Counterterrorism and was the lead agent during the investigation of the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, bombing of three housing complexes. He was also closely involved with the Christmas Day bomber investigation.

From his testimony, he believes that the real improvements to TSA’s capability to thwart another terrorist attack is not only through last-minute security at airports, but through a thorough “multi-pronged approach that combines a variety of disciplines, including risk assessment, intelligence and security initiatives, as well as law enforcement.”

The rub comes whenever the issue of collective bargaining comes into consideration. The Democratic side supports it. The Republican side does not.

Passengers can be stripped naked, forced to go through ignominious searches, wait in lengthy lines, take off our shoes, pack liquids in quart-sized bags, get patted down and be tested for explosives but the main flashpoint between the two parties seems to be unionization of TSA.

[For the record, I see no reason for collective bargaining in an agency that is a security service for the country. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Secret Service, FBI and CIA are not unionized.]

Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) got right to the collective bargaining point in her opening statement. Noting that the FBI does not have unions.

I am sure you can appreciate the need for TSA to have a flexible workforce which can react quickly to emerging threats. While the FBI does not have unions, I wonder whether the FBI could do its job as effectively, if the agents had collective bargaining authority. This Committee will be extremely interested in how you address this issue.

Sen. DeMint (R-SC) also made it a point to open questioning focused on collective bargaining. He bluntly asked, “How will collective bargaining enhance security?” He then likened collective bargaining as putting 19th Century constraints on 21st Century organizations.

Mr. Pistole steadfastly refused to say what his actions would be until he completed the assessment of collective bargaining that has been ordered by the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Nepolitano.

One wonders what is job #1? Is it securing the airports, ports and transportation system of the country? Is it developing more traveler-friendly procedures, better watch lists, less intrusive scanners, developing a more integrated intelligence system? Or, is it deciding whether to unionize the TSA workforce?

Sen. Begich (D-AK) took the opposite stance. He noted that he, as the mayor of Anchorage, worked with unionized fire and police departments. His experience is that unionization was not a negative.

He asked Mr. Pistole, “In all of your years working with the FBI, during your interaction with police departments across the country, some unionized, some not, could you ever tell which department was a union shop and which was not?”

Mr. Pistole answered, “No.”

Sen. Warner (D-VA) focused on customer service. He cited the terrible problems encountered at Dulles Airport with waits up to 45 minutes and an hour. His basic question, “What steps will you take to improve customer service.”

Of course Mr. Pistole doesn’t have specifics, but he promised to focus on this area and try to provide more than only negative feedback for poor jobs, but also positive feedback for a job well done.

In closing, Chairman Rockerfeller noted that the American public has a bargain with the TSA. That bargain is basically, we will put up with some inconvenience and fund TSA in order to be safe and secure, but we expect TSA to treat us with dignity and provide good service.

Chairman Rockerfeller felt that TSA was falling down on the customer service aspect of their side of the bargain, noting the kinds of problems that he has seen at Dulles Airport.

Mr. Pistole closed his remarks noting:

We should be judged not only by our ability to defend our nation from terrorism, but also by our commitment to defend the rights and freedoms we all enjoy. If confirmed, safeguarding the civil liberties and privacy interests of all Americans will remain a top priority.

I predict smooth sailing for Mr. Pistole through the confirmation process, but should he touch that third rail of collective bargaining, all hell is going to break loose and his effectiveness will be diminished.

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