ARLINGTON, Va. — Protecting riders on mass-transit systems from terrorist attacks will be as high a priority as ensuring safe air travel, the new head of the Transportation Security Administration promises.
In his first interview since taking over the TSA, former FBI deputy director John Pistole told USA TODAY that some terrorists consider subway and rail cars an easier target than heavily secured planes. "Given the list of threats on subways and rails over the last six years going on seven years, we know that some terrorist groups see rail and subways as being more vulnerable because there's not the type of screening that you find in aviation," he said. "From my perspective, that is an equally important threat area."
Pistole, 54, took over the TSA on July 1 after 26 years at the FBI. He said he wants to make the agency a full partner in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
The attempted bombing of a flight over Detroit last Christmas indicates "al-Qaeda and affiliates are still interested in doing some type of attack involving aviation," Pistole said.
Members of Congress, including House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., have pressed the TSA to put more money into mass-transit security. Thompson met with Pistole on Thursday and said the two agreed.
Thompson said he was "impressed with Pistole's knowledge of security" and with his experience at the FBI as a manager. "From that, I am confident he won't pass on making difficult decisions," Thompson said.
Deputy FBI director from 2004 until taking over the TSA, Pistole brings an extensive security and counterterrorism experience to the 60,000-person agency that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was deeply involved in high-profile terrorism investigations, including the Christmas Day bombing attempt and the attempted car bombing in New York City's Times Square in May.
Pistole said he wants TSA workers, including 47,000 screeners at 450 airports, to operate as a "national-security, counterterrorism organization, fully integrated into U.S. government efforts."
"I want to take TSA to the next level," Pistole said.
Pistole is President Obama's first TSA chief. Two Obama nominees withdrew during the confirmation process.