Addressing the American Bar Association’s 6th Annual Homeland Security Law Institute

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Transportation Security Ten Years After 9/11 and Ten Years From Now
Administrator John S. Pistole
Thursday, March 3, 2011
As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Joe, for that kind introduction.

I’m honored to be here today to close out your two-day event. The ABA has a long history of putting together thought-provoking events and I know you’ve heard from an impressive list of presenters, including former Solicitor General Paul Clement.

This is my second appearance at an ABA event this year.

In January, I had the pleasure of speaking to the ABA’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security and it’s good to be back with you.

As Joe mentioned, I am a recovering lawyer – I practiced law for two years in Indiana before joining the FBI in 1983 and coming to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in July of last year.

I am thankful for my time at the Bureau.

My work in counterterrorism gave me a strong foundation from which to approach my mission at TSA – leading U.S. transportation security efforts further into the 21st Century.

It is not an easy task. TSA has an incredibly difficult and complex mission.

Over the years terrorists have set their sights on all modes of transportation – including rail, as evidenced by the attacks in Madrid in ’04, London in ’05 and on the Moscow subway last March.

At TSA, we have worked with our counterparts to further secure America’s transportation network across all modes. In fact, I have made mass transit and passenger rail security one of my top priorities and a significant focus of our efforts.

At the same time, we know that commercial aviation remains a top terrorist target.

For my remarks today, I want to walk through the threat landscape as it currently exists; then discuss how we’ve approached the aviation threat over the 10 years since 9/11; and then I’ll get into some of the changes I’m interested in as we look to a more common-sense approach in the future.

During my time at the FBI – and now in my role at TSA – I have been reminded every single day that the threat we face is real.

After the failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day 2009, the President reminded all of us of “the challenge we face in protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction.”

The President also singled out TSA’s critical role as we continue to confront a creative, determined enemy.

We were reminded of the ongoing, evolving nature of the threat last October when terrorists tried to ship bombs on cargo planes destined for the U.S.

This past January, a suicide bomber detonated a device in the baggage claim area of Moscow’s airport.

And several recent incidents brought into sharp focus the fact that we continue to face a significant terror threat here at home.

Last Christmas, a 19-year-old college student plotted to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.

Earlier this year, my former colleagues arrested a man planning an attack on the DC subway system.

And just last week, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested a young Saudi man suspected of plotting terror attacks in Texas as a “lone-wolf” jihadist.

Take note that each of these attempts involved using explosives to inflict significant physical carnage, while also exacting a high level of residual psychological damage.

Recognizing this tactical shift – moving away from the hijackings we’ve seen going back decades – is key to understanding the threat we face today.

And make no mistake – the threat is real, it is relentless and it is evolving.

Understanding the nature of the threat is the first critical step in the process of determining the best way to mitigate it.

And that word – mitigate – is important.

We are not in the risk elimination business – and we never will be.

The analogy I use frequently is about car accidents. I tell people: “You want to eliminate the risk that you’ll be in a car accident? Then you have to stop driving.”

The same is true with transportation security – the only way to eliminate risk is for everyone to stop traveling. Obviously, that is not going to happen.

So instead we look for the best way to mitigate risk and make our transportation systems as safe as possible. So let’s take a look at the approach.

The topic of this speech is: Transportation Security Ten Years After 9/11 – And Ten Years From Now. In order to tell the story of where we are today – and where we’re headed – it’s important to appreciate where we’ve come from.

In the United States, we have long been aware of the threat posed to commercial aircraft. The threat hasn’t always looked the same but it has always been there.

In what was likely the world’s first fatal hijacking, three Romanian terrorists killed a crewmember on board a Romanian Airlines flight on July 25, 1947.

We saw the first act of criminal violence against a U.S. airliner on November 1, 1955. A man placed a bomb in the suitcase of his unwitting mother in hopes of collecting her life insurance policy. The plane blew up after taking off in Denver and all 44 people on board were killed.

And some of us in this room are old enough to remember the Cuban hijackings of the 1960s. It was in May 1961 when the first U.S. airliner was diverted to Cuba.

Over the next decade, dozens of planes were hijacked.

These early incidents rightly caused the U.S. government to take a variety of actions to try to step up aviation security.

In an odd bit of historical irony, it was on September 11, 1970, that President Nixon established the first incarnation of what would ultimately become the Federal Air Marshal Service.

Just three years later, the FAA established the foundation for the security framework we know today – mandating inspection of carryon baggage and the physical screening of all passengers.

They put metal detectors in airports, and security checkpoints were in place to stay.

Over the next three decades, aviation security existed more or less in this image.

Society and technology, of course, continued to evolve – but airport security remained constant.

When I think about this, I am reminded of the classic movie Field of Dreams. Near the end of the movie, James Earl Jones tells Kevin Costner’s character that the one constant through all the years has been baseball.

America rolled by like an army of steamrollers, our way of life changed, and history marched on. But baseball had marked the time.

This was a great movie about America’s National Pastime, but the sentiment could just as easily have been related to airport security.

Up until that tragic September day 10 years ago, while the world changed over the course of three decades, airport security stayed the same.

A variety of private firms managed the checkpoints, government played a limited role and we were content to let it be.

But then, 31 years to the day after President Nixon first established a federal air marshal program, terrorists struck at the heart of our nation, simultaneously taking over four commercial aircraft and shaking us to our core.

Like those early acts of terrorism against commercial aircraft all those years ago, the events of September 11, 2001, prompted the government to take action.

After the initial emergency measures were lifted, a longer-term vision began to take shape.

Our understanding of the enemy quickly grew more sophisticated.

We faced a determined enemy, and they were plotting our destruction every day.

They lived on our soil, knew how to assess our weaknesses and could adapt their tactics as needed.

We had to be just as committed, and just as relentless.

It was in this environment that Congress decided it was time for a federalized counterterrorism security network. We needed a cohesive, nimble force that could assess intelligence and quickly implement new security measures without interruption.

It was time for the more fragmented system of private companies, which had been in place for decades, to go.

Almost overnight, Congress created TSA to deploy personnel across the nation and assume responsibility for transportation security.

From Day One, TSA’s marching orders have been difficult, and critical to our nation.

It has taken time to grow as an agency, but over the years, the men and women of TSA’s federalized workforce have been able to effectively carry out this mission.

We engage other government entities here in the U.S., foreign governments, private industry and the public to strengthen the global commercial aviation network.

Today, the United States has an aviation security system that deploys multiple layers of risk-based, intelligence-driven security measures.

The system begins long before a traveler arrives at an airport and continues all the way to the cockpit – providing security throughout a passenger’s trip, not just at the security checkpoint.

We protect against tactics that have been used in the past because shame on us if we allow another 9/11, or if the next Abdulmutallab succeeds.

But, we do not have the luxury of simply preventing the threats of yesterday and today – we must also anticipate the threats of tomorrow.

So how do we do it?

As I mentioned, the approach begins long before passengers get to the airport. Intelligence and law enforcement partners work to detect, deter and disrupt terrorist plots before they happen.

Our newly implemented Secure Flight program fulfills a key 9/11 Commission recommendation by using basic biographical information provided by each passenger to vet them against terrorist watch lists.

And last summer, TSA fulfilled a key provision of the 9/11 Act by ensuring that 100 percent of all cargo transported on domestic passenger aircraft is screened.

Since the disrupted air cargo bomb plot last October, we have taken additional steps to further strengthen cargo security.

At the airport, numerous layers of security are in place.

There are behavior detection officers, explosive-detection canines and closed-circuit video surveillance.

And, of course, we do have the physical screening at the checkpoint.

Now, if I’m not mistaken, I believe the media covered this aspect of security over the Thanksgiving holiday a little bit.

It’s possible you might have seen a story or two.

You know the drill: passengers take off their shoes, remove liquids from their carry-ons, take off outer layers of clothing, take out their laptops and proceed through the checkpoint.

As the threat has changed, so have some of our methods and our detection needs.

Today, one of the most significant threats to commercial aviation is well-concealed improvised explosive devices made completely out of non-metallic material.

We’re talking about plastics, powders, liquids and gels that metal detectors alone cannot detect.

So we have moved aggressively to deploy methods and technology that can detect this threat at airports nationwide.

While there is no silver bullet, advanced imaging technology gives us the best opportunity to detect non-metallic explosives.

Of course, as the technology evolves, we’re faced with new issues that didn’t exist when metal detectors were the only game in town.

The latest issues we’ve been working through relate to safety and privacy.

All the testing clearly shows that advanced imaging technology is safe for all passengers and employees.

On the privacy front, all of you in this room know well that in the security world, we are always working to find the right balance between security and privacy.

At TSA, enhancing passenger privacy remains a priority.

From the outset, TSA implemented significant protections when the new technology was deployed.

We are now testing new software that eliminates passenger-specific images, and instead uses a generic outline of a person to identify potential threats.

This software, known as automatic target recognition, is being tested in Las Vegas, Atlanta and here at Washington-Reagan airport.

If our testing is successful, we anticipate quickly expanding the use of the software across the country.

All of these individual measures, and others I have not mentioned, combine to create our multi-layered security system that seeks to mitigate risk.

Now, I knew before I came to TSA last year, and I’ve grown more convinced since taking the job, that this system is not perfect.

We can all testify to the inconvenience we sometimes experience because of such a comprehensive system.

But the other thing we can say with absolute confidence is that this system has effectively secured aviation in this nation since 9/11.

However, we will always seek ways to improve.

Since being confirmed to lead TSA last July, I’ve had the opportunity to engage my counterparts overseas, and listen to stakeholders, private industry, our employees, and the traveling public.

And I’ll tell you something: a lot of people have a lot of opinions – surprising, I know.

In all seriousness, this input has been invaluable as I’ve shaped my vision for TSA’s future.

A key component of our future will be continuing the efforts already underway to engage the international community.
We fully recognize that it takes a concerted, global effort to protect the world’s interconnected aviation network.

The security of U.S. civil aviation is intimately connected to the security of the international civil aviation system.

That’s why Secretary Napolitano and I have embarked on a robust outreach initiative to engage the world community on these issues.

Her leadership has brought about historic consensus with our international colleagues to strengthen security through improved information sharing, cooperation on technological development and enhanced aviation security standards.

Last October, the International Civil Aviation Organization adopted the Declaration on Aviation Security, which highlights the commitment of the more than 190 member states to collaborate in the effort to enhance aviation security at the international level.

This extraordinary global collaboration is making real progress on aviation security a reality.

Here at home, TSA is also engaging in important work to explore checkpoint of the future concepts that incorporate cutting-edge technology to improve security while making the travel experience better.

And before I close and take some of your questions, I want to expand on this idea a bit more.

First, recognize that TSA screens more than 628 million airline passengers each year at U.S. airports.

The vast majority of the 628 million present little-to-no risk of committing an act of terrorism.

Everyone is familiar with the current system in place that screens nearly everyone the same way.

If we want to continue to ensure the secure freedom of movement for people and commerce across this great nation and around the world, there are solutions that go beyond the one-size-fits-all system.

My vision is to accelerate TSA’s evolution into a truly risk-based, intelligence-driven organization in every way.

Last fall, I directed the agency to explore ways to further develop this strategy.

Our team is making good progress.

We want to focus our limited resources on higher-risk passengers, while speeding and enhancing the passenger experience at the airport.

I believe what we’re working on will provide better security by more effectively deploying our resources, while also improving passengers’ travel experiences by potentially streamlining the screening experience for many people.

I look forward to announcing more details on this effort later this year.

Thank you all. I look forward to answering your questions.