Remarks at the 83rd Annual AAAE Conference & Exposition

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Administrator John S. Pistole
Alexandria, VA
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for that kind introduction. I had the opportunity to speak at AAAE’s annual Aviation Security Summit last December and it’s good to be back with you.

You are the men and women who run our nation’s airports, and at TSA we are grateful for the strong relationship we continue to have with all of you.

Since I last spoke to you in December, a lot has changed in the world. And for my remarks today, I want to:
Talk a little about the significant event that occurred 17 days ago when the world’s most recognizable terrorist was killed in a targeted operation by American forces in Pakistan;
Discuss how we’ve approached the threats to aviation over the 10 years since 9/11;
Then I’ll get into some of the changes I’m interested in as we look for a more common-sense approach in the future of aviation security.

At the end, I’ll be happy to take time for your questions.

So getting started – on May 1, the President announced to the world that Osama bin Laden had finally been brought to justice.

Bin Laden’s death marks the most symbolic if not most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda. This feat is a reminder that America can do big things – and difficult things – even if it takes years to achieve.

Since 9/11, both President Bush and President Obama made bringing bin Laden to justice a priority.

The men who ultimately carried out this operation exemplify the extraordinary courage of those who defend and protect our nation at home and abroad, whether they wear a military or law enforcement uniform or serve as one of thousands of unsung heroes in the intelligence and homeland security communities.

And the countless intelligence and counter-terrorism professionals who pursued bin Laden for years have the satisfaction of a job well done, and they have the gratitude of many people not just here, but around the world.

Bin Laden’s death does not mark the end of our effort to fight violent extremism. We have always known that the threat we face is bigger than one man, just as there are more terrorist groups than AQ.

There’s no doubt that al Qaeda and others continue to pursue attacks against us and we must remain vigilant both at home and abroad.

The effort to bring bin Laden to justice served as a prime illustration of the continuum on which our nation’s counter-terrorism operation runs.

On one end of the continuum are the nameless, faceless individuals who gather intelligence in every corner of the world. They do things like uncover the nickname of Osama bin Laden’s personal courier.

Further along the continuum, you have my former colleagues at the FBI, who can use this information to investigate leads, working day and night to disrupt plots before they have the chance to materialize.

Ideally, no terrorist plot makes it beyond this point of the continuum. Hopefully, we have found and disrupted any plots before they have a chance to become operational.

But that is not always the case. At the other end of the continuum, you have folks like the men and women of the Transportation Security Administration. It is our job to serve as the last line of defense.

It is not an easy task. TSA has an incredibly difficult and complex mission. We assess risk across all modes of transportation and devise strategies to mitigate that risk.

And take note of that word – mitigate. We are not in the risk elimination business, we never will be and don’t let anyone tell you we can be.

The analogy I use frequently is about car accidents. The only way to eliminate the risk that you’ll be in a car accident is to stop driving.

The same is true with all transportation modes – the only way to eliminate risk is for everyone to stop traveling.

That is not a real solution, and it’s just not going to happen.

So instead we look for the best way to mitigate risk and make our transportation systems as safe and secure as possible, all in partnership with all those who have equity in the system, particularly aviation and the men and women of AAAE.

Since 9/11

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.

From the perspective of “checkpoint security,” the paradigm we know today dates back to the 1970s. After a decade of hijackings in the ‘60s, the FAA put metal detectors in airports and we began screening every passenger and every bag for “prohibited items.”

Over the following years, more emphasis was placed on keeping these “items” off of planes while less time was spent understanding the people who were flying and how they might pose a threat.

After nearly three decades of little change in airport security, the events of September 11, 2001, spurred significant changes in America’s approach.

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

Our understanding of our adversaries grew more sophisticated, and we knew we had to understand and counteract their commitment, determination and creativity.

Congress created TSA immediately following the 9/11 attacks as a federalized aviation security network, taking on and professionalizing the role filled for years by airline-hired contractors.

It has taken time to grow as an agency, but over the years, the men and women of TSA’s workforce have been able to effectively carry out their counterterrorism mission and we’ve made significant progress in strengthening transportation security.

Within the aviation domain, we deploy multiple layers of risk-based, intelligence-driven security measures. As a result, a terrorist who has to overcome multiple security layers in order to carry out an attack is more likely to be pre-empted, deterred, or to fail during the attempt.

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

One of the significant innovations since 9/11 is the Secure Flight program. Many are familiar with the process of using basic biographical information to vet all passengers against terrorist watch lists.

We are able to assess this information up to 72 hours prior to take off – and every minute thereafter through the duration of a given traveler’s journey.

Secure Flight provides us the opportunity to more effectively deploy certain resources and keep the public safe from those individuals known to be potential threats to aviation.

Another change came last summer when 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.

This may sound like a no-brainer today, but with the billions of pounds of cargo transported on passenger aircraft every year, this step was a significant undertaking. With the cooperation of shippers, airlines and other stakeholders, it was completed ahead of schedule and travelers are safer today because of it.

At the airport, as all of you well know, there are numerous layers of security in place. These layers provide the best opportunity currently available to detect and disrupt the plans of those who seek to do us harm.

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

Additionally, we have what TSA is most known for: the physical screening at the checkpoint.

If I’m not mistaken, I believe the media has covered this aspect of security a little bit over the past few months. It’s possible you might have seen a story or two.

You know the drill here: 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 over the years, so have some of our methods and our detection needs.

Today, we are very concerned about well-concealed improvised explosive devices made entirely out of non-metallic material.

To counter this threat, we have aggressively deployed methods and technology that can detect these items.

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

All of these individual measures, and others I have not mentioned, combine to create a multi-layered system of aviation security that seeks to mitigate risk. No layer on its own solves all our challenges, but in combination they create a strong, formidable system.

That being said, I’ll be the first to admit, this system is not without its shortcomings. So I want to finish up by talking a little about where I see us headed in the future.

The Future

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

So, yes, the system is not without flaws and we are always looking for ways to improve.

My vision for the future of aviation security begins with three fundamental principles:
We must ensure that any new step we take strengthens security.
The vast majority of the 628 million annual air travelers present little-to-no risk of committing an act of terrorism. We should screen smarter, and appropriately focus on those who do present the greatest risk, thereby improving security and the travel experience for everyone else.
Although we can mitigate risk, we will never fully eliminate risk and those who claim that is possible are not being honest with you.

With these principles in mind, the United States must evolve its approach to aviation security to become more risk-based.

In the 10 years since 9/11, we’ve kept aviation safe. But in the next decade, we must assess what is working well to evolve our security approach to stay ahead of tomorrow’s threats.

Since I began at TSA last year, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from many different people from all over the world about ideas for how TSA can work better and smarter.

Some concrete proposals have been offered up by highly-regarded voices in the security community. Believe me when I say that I am listening.

Within TSA, we have undertaken our own review of all procedures. Last fall, I directed the agency to explore ways to develop a strategy for truly risk-based security.

We have been looking at everything, including:
What procedures and technology we use
How are specific procedures carried out
How certain segments of the population screened

I point out these three specifics to illustrate that we are truly looking at every aspect of what we do.

And, even beyond assessing what we already do, we are also exploring things we could do.

One specific thing we’re considering is developing ways to expand our ability to conduct more identity-based screening.

Just about six months into this process, we have made good progress toward developing a long-term security construct that we hope could eventually change the flying experience for most travelers.

While many of these potential changes are still being developed and are not quite ready to be rolled out fully, in the coming months we expect to be ready to move forward with some smaller concrete steps that will begin to move us away from what can seem like a one-size-fits-all approach and onto the path of more risk-based security.

For example, one change is a new crewmember screening system. We are currently testing an identity-based system that will to enable TSA security officers to positively verify the identity and employment status of pilots against airline employee databases.

As the individuals tasked with actually flying and controlling the airplane, screening pilots for the standard prohibited items just doesn’t make much sense.

On the other hand, positively confirming pilots’ identities to make sure those in flight crew uniforms are who they say they are does make sense. Testing is underway at a limited number of airports and we hope to expand this process to additional U.S. airports this year.

While the initial incarnation of this program involves only pilots, flight attendants are under consideration for a future phase of this program.

Beyond short-term steps that will introduce real changes to the checkpoint today, we are also looking at concepts that could transform the checkpoint in the long-term.

Chief among these concepts is finding ways to focus our limited resources on higher-risk passengers, while speeding and enhancing the passenger experience at the airport whenever possible.

Eventually, passengers who can be deemed “low-risk” after volunteering information ahead of time could be eligible for expedited screening.

If we can verify the additional information that passengers submit, and combine that with our other layers of security, we should be able to expedite the physical screening for many people.

While there will never be a guarantee of expedited screening – we must retain a certain element of randomness to prevent terrorists from gaming the system – this holds the potential to significantly change the travel experience.

This type of identity-based security is a long-term vision that can help strengthen security, and we hope it eventually improves the travel experience for most travelers.

The ideas I’ve discussed today – and others – will set us on a path toward more risk-based security at airports. For many, these changes cannot come soon enough and the proof will be in how we design and implement these changes.

While I wish we could snap our fingers and make significant changes tomorrow, that is not possible. If the process of implementing a truly risk-based approach to security were easy, it would have been done long ago.

This will be an ongoing, collaborative effort. What we’re talking about is a new security paradigm for the 21st century that recognizes the fact that an overwhelming majority of passengers do not have ill intent.

We face challenges in establishing this new baseline for security. This new approach may work well in some airports and not others.

That’s why we will be looking to all of you in this room to work with us as we develop this new approach. For some airports, this may mean some small modifications. You know your airports better than anyone, and we are asking for your cooperation to help us move forward.

As TSA nears its 10th birthday and looks to the future, we know that continued partnership with our aviation stakeholders will be critical.

Thank you for all that you have done – and all that you will do – in our efforts to keep America’s skies safe for the 1.7 million people who fly each and every day.

We look forward to continued collaboration in the months and years to come as we move forward to the next promising chapter in security.

Thank you and I am happy to take some questions.