Full-body imagers provide “the best available technology” in the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's arsenal to detect the latest type of terrorist threat, new TSA Director John Pistole said yesterday.
The scanners, known as Advanced Imaging Technology, can ferret out non-metallic explosive devices, such as those hidden in the underclothing of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 24-year-old Nigerian man charged with attempting to down a Northwest/Delta flight on Christmas Day 2009, Pistole said. “He never touched it, and there was no trace [of explosives] on his hands,” circumstances that made him invisible to threat detection by standard means.
Abdulmutallab proceeded through screening at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol before boarding Flight 253 and was discovered only when the bomb fizzled as the aircraft approached Detroit. Standard types of explosives-detection devices would not be effective against the threat, Pistole said, including X-ray technology that looks for metals or even detectors that sniff through clothing, baggage and exposed areas for chemical traces.
The former FBI deputy director says he is aware of the privacy issues imagers have raised. But he believes procedures in place to protect the public are effective against any potential violation by TSA personnel. Once an image of a screened individual is reviewed by a TSA official, it is deleted. Image retention capabilities are disabled, and no mobile phones or cameras are permitted in the remote viewing rooms, he said.
In his new post for six weeks, Pistole is visiting TSA stations around the country in an effort to meet a mandate to review workforce issues received during congressional hearings on his appointment. He called them “town halls” with TSA employees and managers, and air marshals, and he is listening to “the pros and cons” of collective bargaining. After this and a review of how other agencies handle the issue, he will try to conclude “what makes sense” for TSA.
He says he is “open to all discussions” and his only caveat at this stage is that he will not permit any regime “that would affect adversely security operations.”
On his national tour, Pistole is identifying his key goal as improving TSA’s counterterrorism focus through intelligence and cutting-edge technology. Also, in an interview with The DAILY, he talked about intelligence in three separate components that are part of the layered approach to security. He hopes to do a better job of coordinating information from the security agencies of other nations, from the FBI, which conducts 106 security task forces around the country, from TSA’s information gathering on the day-to-day experience at airports and from other law enforcement agencies around the country.
Intelligence coordination is critical now as the TSA faces threats of attacks by home-grown terrorists who may be U.S. citizens. He is counting on the coordination to provide “a broader perspective of intelligence” that would alert TSA to any coordinated efforts by terrorists “probing the system.” He is also looking to be as proactive as possible.
Pistole said he would welcome the authority to put into the Homeland Security Department budget a line item for equipment he believes necessary to enhance security. He acknowledged that budgets are a challenge and should be subject to priorities. He also said the TSA was unable to certify a technology for screening palletized or containerized cargo. Despite that failure, TSA, with the help of airlines and freight forwarders, met the Aug. 1 congressionally mandated deadline to screen 100% of domestic and incoming cargo. The only gap remaining is international cargo undesignated as high risk. Airline carriers of the cargo are left as the last line of defense and have pledged to secure any unscreened cargo on passenger aircraft. Pistole said TSA has certified 920 cargo-screening centers to do that work.
Pistole is taking over from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano the role of coordinating international efforts on cargo screening and other security issues. He is working out details of a visit to Amsterdam and London in September and several other European destinations. He also plans to participate in the triennial meeting of the Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organizations next month in Montreal.
Among other goals, Pistole wants to build communication between his office and the general aviation and business flying communities, in addition to airline executives. In visits with two airline CEOs last week, he learned of concerns regarding TSA implementation of its security program and the impact on passenger flow.