Pistole Confirmation Greeted With Relief
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff
After more than a year of the Obama administration’s attempts to fill the top spot at the Transportation Security Administration, John S. Pistole’s confirmation by voice vote on Friday slipped through almost unnoticed — even by those who had been following the process for months.
“That’s great news,” said Steven Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), after finding out about the confirmation. “After a year and a half, TSA is long overdue for a new leader, and we’re pleased that Congress approved his nomination, and we hope that he hits the ground running.”
Congressional leaders, too, seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief that 50,000 workers at TSA finally have a leader after a search spanning 18 months and including two nominees who dropped out of the running.
“TSA is an agency that, given its strategic importance to our homeland security, has gone far too long without permanent leadership,” said Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman. “John Pistole is a well-qualified and urgently needed nominee and has a wealth of experience relevant to lead TSA.”
Pistole, who served 26 years in the FBI, most recently as its deputy director, received similarly high marks from committee ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine.
“As a career law enforcement official, Mr. Pistole is the right person for this demanding post,” she said.
In the House, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he is eager to meet with Pistole “to begin working with him to resolve TSA’s workforce challenges, increase its operational efficiency, improve its capacity to secure and share information and intelligence.”
Transportation and Infrastructure ranking Republican John L. Mica of Florida said he was pleased there will now be someone in charge of “this rudderless agency” that’s choked with bureaucracy.
But because of the long confirmation delay and the enormous public pressure on TSA as a result the Christmas Day plot to bomb Northwest Airlines flight 253 and the attempt of Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the failed Times Square car bombing, to flee the country by plane, Pistole will have to adjust to his new duties quickly.
“He doesn’t have much, if any, time for any kind of honeymoon,” said Rich Cooper, a principal at the security consulting firm Catalyst Partners.
Those high-profile attacks will pose a challenge for Pistole, he said. As TSA’s administrator, Pistole will have to make sure that the agency remains forward-looking, and does not slip into a reactive pattern of getting caught up in the latest crisis.
“It’s very easy to get distracted when you have things like the underwear bomber and the Times Square bomber,” Cooper said. “You can’t take your eye off the ball, and he brings a discipline from the FBI in regards to keeping the fundamental mission on the ball.”
Pistole is widely viewed as a good fit for the job, given the challenges facing the agency. Throughout the nomination process, he said he wants to build the agency’s screening technology capability, and spoke about how his intelligence background would help him address longstanding information-sharing issues.
But Lott of the IATA said intelligence improvements have to go beyond TSA, DHS and even the federal government.
“In terms of sharing data and intelligence, it shouldn’t be just an internal project for TSA,” he said. “They need to work with industry. One of the problems we’d have in the past is that TSA would work in a silo and develop rules and regulations without industry input and without any idea of how they would affect the industry.”
Both Lott and Cooper said that Pistole must continue on the course Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano set after the Christmas Day incident, attempting to build international cooperation on airline security issues. Officials within the department said the bombing plot, which involved a flight coming into Detroit from Amsterdam, highlighted the fact that the screening standards of international carriers and airports have a significant impact on U.S. security.
“He absolutely has to keep that up and it’s critical that the department leadership makes him part of the process,” Cooper said.
Lott added that those efforts have to result in actual cooperative agreements with other countries.
“Secretary Napolitano’s approach has been welcome and great compared with her predecessors . . . but [Pistole’s] going to have to take what was shared at those meetings and turn it into action,” he said. “That means not only taking action within the United States at TSA, but with how airline security is addressed in the rest of the world.”
If there was one constant stumbling block during the search for a TSA administrator, it was the issue of whether security officers should have the option of collective bargaining. But Pistole moved past the issue more easily than the two nominees who preceded him — Erroll G. Southers and Army Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding — despite having an almost identical position, several observers of the nomination process said.
“All three said they would conduct a review, that they would do it quickly, and that they would get the results back to Secretary Napolitano,” said Charity Wilson, the legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, one of the unions hoping to represent the TSA staff.
The Obama administration has indicated that it supports a collective bargaining option. Republicans, on the other hand, have argued that TSA should continue its policy against collective bargaining, saying that it would interfere with the agency’s ability to redeploy staff or change employment conditions in the event of an emergency.
The collapse of Southers’ nomination began with a hold from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who expressed displeasure that the nominee would not take a firm stance on whether he would institute collective bargaining. The question dogged Harding at confirmation hearings. Both nominees eventually withdrew amid congressional scrutiny of their professional conduct.
Things were different when Pistole went before Congress. Republicans expressed cautious optimism due to his experience at the FBI, which forbids collective bargaining — although Southers also had an FBI background. After Pistole appeared before the Senate Homeland Security, the issue was effectively settled.
“He told me he did not predetermine his position on collective bargaining, that the FBI did not have collective bargaining, and that was the environment he was used to,” Collins said afterward. “And that security absolutely had to come first.”
Maureen Gilman, legislative and political director for the National Treasury Employees Union, the other group looking to represent TSA workers, said Pistole’s answers “were very similar to Southers and Harding.” But she noted one key difference: timing. Pistole’s nomination comes at a time when pressure has been mounting on the federal government to install TSA leadership due to the Christmas Day and Times Square attacks.
“Everybody is really focused on what a critical position this is,” Gilman said. “I don’t think anyone on either side of the aisle wants to be pointed to as holding up such a qualified nominee.”
And, she added, while collective bargaining was an issue for Southers and Harding, it wasn’t what ultimately caused them to pull out.
“Neither of the other two nominees were hurt by that issue,” she said.