Addressing CSIS: Evolution of Aviation Security since 9/11

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Administrator John S. Pistole
Center for Strategic and International Security, Washington, DC
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning. Thank you Ozzie, for inviting me to spend some time with all of you this morning, and for giving me the opportunity to talk about the evolution of aviation security in America during the 10 years that have passed since September 11, 2001.

Though the wounds inflicted on us that day were deep, and the scars it left may never completely disappear, the American people have displayed the courage, resiliency and resolve necessary to make the United States stronger and more determined to preserve, protect and defend the freedoms which have always defined this great nation.

Today, we honor the memory of so many lives cut tragically short, and recall the heroism of first responders who ran toward the danger to protect the safety of others.

I believe our nation must always mark the arrival of that day. Certainly, the collective concept of our safety and security changed on 9/11, but remembrance is also an important acknowledgement of our humanity, an act of solidarity – with the mother who lost a child, with the family who lost a father, with the brother who lost a sibling. I ask that all of you join me now in a brief moment of silence to honor the memory of the victims of the September 11th attacks.

We all remember where we were, and what we were doing that morning.
I was an FBI agent at the time, and I was in Syracuse, New York working on an inspection of the FBI’s Resident Agency office there.

Part of my responsibilities included making outside contact with people relevant to the inspection, and I was preparing to meet with a federal judge for the Northern District of New York on the morning of September 11th.

I began the day at a local media outlet and was traveling between the station and the judge’s office, unaware that a commercial airliner had been hijacked and deliberately flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

I remember hearing that something had happened in New York City, and when I arrived at the courthouse I joined everyone who was watching the news on a television outside the judge’s chambers.

Very quickly I became aware that the situation was more serious than I first believed, so I excused myself and returned to the FBI office in Syracuse. I was there watching the news when another airliner was flown directly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Seeing it unfold on live television, I remember thinking that it simply couldn’t be happening. It was a surreal moment. Nothing like that had ever happened, and yet millions of people, myself included, had just seen it.

At that point, when it was clear our nation was under attack, the first thing I remember thinking was “this changes everything, and what’s next?”

Of course, there was barely time to think about all the possibilities, or to wonder how widespread the attack could be before we heard about the Pentagon, and soon after, the fourth hijacked plane that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

For the first time in nearly 100 years of flight, the skies above the United States were shut down in response to an attack.

It seemed everyone knew someone immediately impacted by the attacks, and we at the FBI were no different. The Bureau lost a bomb tech, killed in the attack on the South Tower, and the chief security officer for the World Trade Center was a former agent who had retired from the Bureau only a few months earlier.

I served as the FBI’s Deputy Assistant Director for the rapidly expanding Counterterrorism Division, later heading that Division and then the National Security Branch before being named as the FBI’s Deputy Director.

In some ways, it’s hard to believe 10 years have passed since that September morning, yet the resiliency of the American people shines brightly as we mark the 10th anniversary of a day we will never forget.

Today, I also want to tell the story of how far aviation security has come since 9/11 – to share what the men and women of TSA have accomplished in meeting a number of challenges along the way, and close with a brief discussion of where we hope to take the organization during its next 10 years.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, America is more secure than we were a decade ago. We have made progress on every front, and we are more prepared to confront persistent and evolving threats against our transportation systems.

In fact, our country’s aviation security system before 9/11 bears little resemblance to the robust and multi-layered system in place today.

Consider that before September 11, 2001, there was no cohesive system in place to vet passengers in advance of flying; only limited technologies in place for uncovering a wide array of threats to passengers or aircraft; no comprehensive federal requirements to screen checked or carry-on baggage; and only minimal in-flight security on most flights.

Built in direct response to attacks that exploited vulnerabilities in our aviation system, TSA will conclude its 10th year of work later this fall.

Congress created the agency immediately following the attacks, standing it up quickly in the year following 9/11. Thousands upon thousands of Americans answered the call to service, and many of the dedicated individuals who joined TSA – including numerous veterans and first responders – are still serving our nation today.

In March 2002, TSA’s first cadre of federal screeners included 80 individuals; today more than 52,000 Transportation Security Officers (TSOs), Transportation Security Inspectors, and Behavior Detection Officers serve on the frontlines at more than 450 U.S. airports.

We’ve achieved significant milestones over the past decade -- including meeting key 9/11 Commission recommendations.

First, TSA now vets 100 percent of all passengers flying into, out of and within the U.S. against government watch lists. This is accomplished through the Secure Flight program, the value of which was recently recognized in the Bipartisan Policy Center’s scorecard on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations.

Second, we’ve improved aviation security through technology that provides advanced screening for explosives. For example at the checkpoints nationwide, TSA utilizes Advanced Imaging Technology – among other advanced technologies such as Explosives Trace Detection and Bottle Liquid Scanners– that provide us with the best opportunity to detect both metallic and non-metallic threats including explosives. With upgraded automated target recognition software, AIT is even more efficient, while at the same time enhancing privacy protection for all passengers screened with this technology.

Third, TSA now screens all air cargo transported on passenger planes domestically and we are working with our international partners to achieve this level of screening for all international inbound cargo on passenger planes.

In addition to these key accomplishments, TSA is screening 100 percent of checked and carry-on baggage for explosives.

Today, we also deploy explosive-detection canine teams, behavior detection officers and explosives trace detection tools to stay ahead of evolving threats and keep passengers safe.

We work closely with public and private partners inside the airports to assist with gate and perimeter security practices. And we will always retain random and unpredictable methods so that terrorists intent on replicating the destruction of 9/11 aren’t able to game the system.

That includes security once passengers are on board the plane, where you’ll find hardened and locked cockpits, the greatly expanded Federal Air Marshals Service and the Federal Flight Deck Officers program, as well as important self-defense training for other crewmembers.

The men and women of TSA remain committed to building and strengthening a multi-layered approach to transportation security. And while our efforts are most visible at airports, it’s much more than that, including many layers both seen and unseen by travelers.

Of course, intelligence plays a critical role in keeping transportation safe. TSA works closely with our partners in the intelligence and law enforcement communities to detect, deter and disrupt terrorist plots before they occur. We begin every day with an intelligence briefing and work to share critical information with key stakeholders and our frontline officers.

And we continue to look for new ways to leverage all the resources available to improve our homeland security enterprise. Our message is that everyone has a role to play in keeping our nation safe, and we encourage the public to report suspicious activities: If You See Something, Say Something to local authorities.

Clearly, aviation security is stronger and more rigorous now than it was a decade ago, and TSA is continuing to enhance security with the evolution of risk-based, intelligence-driven security methods, which I will discuss in a little more detail in just a minute.

But the bottom line is this: Before 9/11, there were very few layers of aviation security, but today, there is a robust system with 20 layers of security in place at more than 450 airports around the nation.

So, what do the next 10 years hold for transportation security? I believe it begins with TSA’s continued movement toward developing and implementing a more risk-based security system, a phrase you may have heard the last few months. When I talk about risk-based, intelligence-driven security it’s important to note that this is not about a specific program per se, or a limited initiative being evaluated at a handful of airports.

On the contrary, risk-based security is much more comprehensive. It means moving further away from what may have seemed like a one-size-fits-all approach to security. It means focusing our agency’s resources on those we know the least about, and using intelligence in better ways to inform the screening process.

It is a risk-mitigation strategy that also makes good business sense. For example, enhancing cargo security wherever we can helps strengthen the integrity of the global supply chain, and that’s good for businesses everywhere. In this regard, we are challenging industry leaders to help us get there.

Another aspect of our risk-based, intelligence-driven security system is the trusted traveler proof-of-concept that will begin this fall. As part of this proof-of-concept, we are looking at how to expedite the screening process for travelers we know and trust the most, and travelers who are willing to voluntarily share more information with us before they travel. Doing so will then allow our officers to more effectively prioritize screening and focus our resources on those passengers we know the least about and those of course on watch lists.

To make it happen, we are partnering with U.S. Customs and Border Protection utilizing their Global Entry, SENTRY and NEXIS programs as well as working with U.S. air carriers and airports. The bottom line goal is to provide the most effective security while improving the screening experience whenever possible. Of course, nothing will ever guarantee expedited screening. Passengers will always be subject to random, unpredictable measures.

We’re also working with airlines already testing a known-crewmember concept, and we are evaluating changes to the security screening process for children 12-and-under. Both of these concepts reflect the principles of risk-based security, considering that airline pilots are among our country’s most trusted travelers and the preponderance of intelligence indicates that children 12-and-under pose little risk to aviation security.

Finally, we are also evaluating the value of expanding TSA’s behavior detection program, to help our officers identify people exhibiting signs that may indicate a potential threat. This reflects an expansion of the agency’s existing SPOT program, which was developed by adapting global best practices. This effort also includes additional, specialized training for our organization’s Behavior Detection Officers and is currently being tested at Boston’s Logan International airport, where the SPOT program was first introduced.

In conclusion, in the next 10 years, TSA will build upon the important progress made since 9/11. We will continue to refine and enhance aviation security throughout the country, while also improving the passenger experience whenever we can. Our goal is to provide the traveling public with the most effective security in the most efficient way possible.

We look forward to working with all of our partners, in both the public and private sector, to continue securing our nation’s transportation to keep you and your loved ones safe when you travel. Thank you.

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