It took three tries, but President Barack Obama finally got an appointment confirmed to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). After former FBI agent Erroll Southers’ nomination imploded over revelations that he accessed FBI databases for personal reasons, President Obama turned to Robert A. Harding, a major general who retired from the U.S. Army in 2001. But Harding had to withdraw his nomination after concerns were raised over his work as a defense contractor. So, finally, the White House turned to a veteran of the FBI, John S. Pistole, whose nomination was confirmed by the Senate on June 25, 2010.
Although he was confirmed without a dissenting vote, Pistole’s views were not without controversy. In July 2004, during testimony in a closed door hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he was asked his opinion of enhanced interrogation techniques, otherwise known as torture. He replied, "In my view the benefits are huge and the costs are insignificant.”
Pistole’s father, Dr. Hollis Pistole, was a professor of theology at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana, and his mother, Elisabeth, was a high school teacher. A native of Anderson, Indiana, Pistole was a rebellious teenager and broke his neck in a car accident and almost died. He later told the Anderson University school magazine that, “I see that as God’s way of giving me a wake-up call, saying ‘Knucklehead, I’ve blessed you in so many ways. Don’t squander your living. I’ve given you blessings and an opportunity. You’ve got a job to do.’”
Pistole graduated from Anderson University in 1978 with a major in American studies and pre-law, and went on to Indiana University School of Law. He completed law school in 1981, and then practiced law for two years.
Pistole has said that his religious beliefs include service to community. “Each of us as Christians are called to be ministers to a unique congregation, that is those we interact with on a daily basis—our families, our coworkers, whomever. We may be the only Christ that somebody sees.”
Pistole joined the FBI in 1983. He served as a special agent in the Minneapolis division, investigating organized crime and violent crimes. In 1985 he was transferred to the New York division, where he continued to specialize in combating organized crime, in particular the Genovese crime family. He was being promoted to a supervisor in the Organized Crime (OC) Section at FBI headquarters in 1990. His work included assisting the Italian National Police in their investigations into the 1992 assassinations of two prominent magistrates, and serving as an instructor in OC matters at The FBI Academy.
In 1994, Pistole became a field supervisor of a White-Collar Crime (WCC) and Civil Rights Squad in Indianapolis, where he created a Health Care Fraud Task Force and a Public Corruption Task Force. During this time, he also developed curricula and provided instruction at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, Hungary.
Next, in 1999, he served as assistant special agent in charge in Boston, Massachusetts, where he had oversight for WCC, Computer Intrusion Programs and all FBI matters in Maine and New Hampshire, and WCC, especially public corruption, in Rhode Island. In 1999, he helped lead the investigative and recovery efforts for the Egypt Air Flight 990 crash off the coast of Rhode Island. Following the espionage arrest of Robert Hanssen, he was detailed to FBI headquarters and helped lead the Information Security Working Group, addressing security and vulnerability issues.
In July 2001, Pistole was named an inspector in the Inspection Division in Washington, DC, leading teams conducting evaluations and audits of FBI field offices and headquarters divisions.
In April 2002, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Pistole was assigned to the Counterterrorism Division, first as deputy assistant director for operations, then as assistant director. Pistole was then appointed as the executive assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
In 2003, he led the FBI team that investigated the bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 40 people, including eight Americans.
In October, 2004, Pistole was promoted to deputy director, the No. 2 position in the FBI. He was involved in the investigations of the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the plot to attack New York City’s subways and the attempted Times Square car bombing by Faisal Shahzad.
Pistole held the position of FBI deputy director until his appointment to take over the leadership of the TSA.
Pistole and his wife Kathy have two daughters, Lauren and Jennifer.
Pistole is a member of the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana. Influenced by Wesleyan theology and Pietism, the Church of God is a non-hierarchical denomination without formal membership. Other noted followers of the Church include Montana Senator Jon Tester and Charles Schulz, the author of the Peanuts comic strip. Pistole has said that, “Every day I pray for discretion or discernment, encouragement and wisdom.”