So far, no one in the Senate appears to be questioning the credentials of FBI Deputy Director John S. Pistole to head the Transportation Security Administration, but he could still face tough questions at his confirmation hearing, which begins Thursday before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
While President Obama’s two previous nominees to lead the TSA withdrew amid questions about their professional conduct, Pistole’s past has not yet raised any obvious red flags, key senators say. Senate Republicans, however, say they have broader concerns about the operations of the embattled agency — part of the Department of Homeland Security — and Pistole’s approach to those controversial issues.
Democrats say they are optimistic that those concerns will be overcome, thanks to Pistole’s strong experience in law enforcement and counterterrorism — as well as to the urgent need to fill the position, the most senior post to be vacant since the beginning of the Obama administration.
Commerce Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., said the sense of urgency and frustration in the department and beyond at not having a leader in charge of transportation security for the past year and a half should help expedite Pistole’s confirmation.
“Not that I think he needs that much help,” Rockefeller added. “He’s very good.”
Rockefeller said he had worked for many years with Pistole, a veteran FBI official who served as deputy assistant director of the bureau’s counterterrorism division after the Sept. 11 attacks. In that job, Pistole played an influential role in shaping the outcome of the Sept. 11 commission report.
Pistole has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill and has managed to impress senators on both sides of the aisle in his one-on-one meetings.
“We had a very good visit,” said Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the Commerce Committee’s ranking Republican. She said she had questions she hoped to have answered at the hearings, but they were not related to Pistole’s credentials or professional history.
“I think he’s very qualified, and from everything we’ve seen so far, there’s not a conflict of interest issue or anything that would be a problem,” Hutchison said.
Among the things she said Pistole will have to address are his priorities for reinvigorating the agency, as well as his position on TSA employees’ right to engage in collective bargaining, a long-running issue that has been debated since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.
“The unionization issue is clearly one that he’s going to need to answer,” said Hutchison, who along with fellow Commerce member Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has been vocal in opposition to allowing TSA staff to unionize.
DeMint met with Pistole late last month and raised the issue of collective bargaining.
Republicans are likely to be stymied on that question, however, as Pistole is expected to continue the pattern of the two previous nominees and not take a firm stand on unionization.
Second Committee Involved
Pistole’s nomination will also be considered by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing.
There he is likely to face questions about the use of whole-body scanning machines at airport security checkpoints — a proposal supported by that panel’s ranking Republican, Susan Collins of Maine.
In an April letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Collins urged the department to consider using computer-based auto-detection technology in an effort to address the privacy concerns raised by the scanners the department is currently testing. Collins plans to raise the issue with Pistole as well.
Like Hutchison, Collins has had only positive things to say about the qualifications of the latest TSA nominee. In a statement responding to Pistole’s nomination, she said she was “pleased that the president has chosen an individual with such strong law enforcement experience.”
The Obama administration has struggled to find someone to take the reins at TSA, which has been leaderless while dealing with two high-profile aviation security breaches — the failed attempt to blow up an airliner as it approached Detroit on Dec. 25 and the ability of the suspect in the failed Times Square car bomb attack to board an airplane before being apprehended on May 3.
The two previous nominees, former FBI agent and homeland security expert Erroll G. Southers and retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding, withdrew from consideration after questions arose about past professional conduct.
Southers withdrew Jan. 20 after Republicans put a hold on his nomination amid concerns that he might have misled Congress about an incident in which he acknowledged improperly accessing federal databases in 1988. Harding cited “distractions caused by my work as a defense contractor” in Iraq as the reason behind his March 26 withdrawal.
Rockefeller said he did not expect Pistole’s nomination to suffer the same fate, even if Republicans continue to raise concerns about collective bargaining and other issues facing the country’s transportation security programs.
“It’s helpful in his case because he’s got a lot of experience,” Rockefeller said. “He’s a very managerial-type person, [a] No. 2 guy [who] runs the place” at the FBI.
“They don’t make a lot of mistakes over there,” he said.
And he observed that the committee members have already had ample opportunity to air their issues with TSA.
“Everybody on the committee’s been through this so many times now,” Rockefeller said.