Addressing Counterterrorism, Risk-Based Security and TSA’s Vision for the Future of Aviation Security

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Administrator John S. Pistole
National Press Club. Washington, D.C.
Monday, March 5, 2012
As Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon. Thank you for coming, and thank you to everyone here at the National Press Club for inviting me to speak to you today regarding the continuing evolution of the Transportation Security Administration, TSA’s place in the global counterterrorism community, and our latest efforts to strengthen aviation security through the ongoing development and implementation of risk-based, intelligence-driven security initiatives.

Last fall, we marked the 10th anniversary of both the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the legislation known as ATSA — the Aviation and Transportation Security Act — passed by the United States Congress as an important part of our country’s response to those horrific attacks.

The Transportation Security Administration was created through that legislation, and we continue to be proud of how TSA was staffed and operational in less than one year. Many Americans don’t know that building TSA required the largest, most complex mobilization of the federal workforce since World War II.

As TSA Administrator, I work closely with many dedicated individuals who know our agency’s story better than anyone because they helped write it.

At the top of that list is TSA Deputy Administrator Gale Rossides, one of just a handful of public servants given the urgent task of standing up a new security agency whose sweeping mission has always been to protect our nation’s transportation systems to ensure the freedom of movement for people and commerce.

At its core, the concept of risk-based security demonstrates a progression of the work TSA has been doing throughout its first decade of service to the American people. It is an understanding, really an acknowledgment, that we are not in the business of eliminating all risk associated with traveling from point A to point B. Risk is inherent in virtually everything we do. Our objective is to mitigate risk and to reduce, as much as possible, the potential for anyone to commit a deliberate attack against our transportation systems.

Before I begin, I want to take just a moment to mention another significant anniversary within the TSA family. Last Friday, March 2nd, the men and women of the Federal Air Marshals Service, who today comprise TSA’s primary law enforcement component, celebrated their 50th anniversary.

Originally safety inspectors for the FAA, the first class of 18 “Peace Officers” as they were called then, was sworn in 50 years ago and began building the legacy of protection which today’s officers uphold every time they board an aircraft. While their core mission to protect the flying public has remained constant over the years, Federal Air Marshals today have an ever expanding role in homeland security and they work closely with other law enforcement agencies to accomplish their mission.

Air marshals today are integrated with our partners such as the National Counterterrorism Center, the National Targeting Center, and on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces.

They are a critical part of the effective partnerships that are essential to nearly everything we do.

To help set the stage for the emergence of the risk-based, intelligence-driven transportation security system we are building at TSA, it helps to take a brief look back and recall that transportation security before the September 11th terrorist attacks bears little resemblance to the strong, multi-layered system in place today. This is especially true with respect to aviation security.

Remember that before September 11, 2001, there was:
No cohesive system in place to check passenger names against terrorist watch lists 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;
Minimal in-flight security on most flights; and,
From a coordination standpoint, before 9/11 there was a lack of timely intelligence-sharing, in both directions — from the federal level down to the individual airports, as well as from an individual airport up to the national level.

I came to TSA more than a year and a half ago, having worked the previous 26 years in a variety of positions within the FBI. That experience with a range of partners inside the law enforcement and intelligence communities helped shape my approach to solidifying TSA’s place within the national counterterrorism continuum.

Every day, we strive to ensure our operational planning and decision making process is timely, efficient and as coordinated as possible — and critically, based on intelligence. We work to share critical information with key industry stakeholders whenever appropriate, and we are constantly communicating with our frontline officers through shift briefings held several times a day.

Thanks to the effective partnerships we’ve forged with industry stakeholders, with our airline and airport partners, and with law enforcement colleagues at every level, TSA has achieved a number of significant milestones during its first 10 years of service.

These include matching 100 percent of all passengers flying into, out of, and within the United States against government watch lists through the Secure Flight program.

It includes screening all air cargo transported on passenger planes domestically and, as you know, we work closely with our international partners every day to screen 100% of high-risk inbound cargo on passenger planes. We’re also working hard with these same partners to screen 100% of allinternational inbound cargo on passenger planes by the end of this year.

And it also includes improving aviation security through innovative technology that provides advanced baggage screening for explosives.

Since their inception in 2005 through February 2012, we have also conducted more than 26,000 Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response or VIPR operations. We have 25 multi-modal VIPR teams working in transportation sectors across the country to prevent or disrupt potential terrorist planning activities.

Additionally, since 2006, TSA has completed more than 190 Baseline Assessments for Security Enhancement for transit, which provides a comprehensive assessment of security programs in critical transit systems.

We are seeing the benefits of how these important steps — combined with our multiple layers of security including cutting-edge technology — keep America safe every day.

Since our standup in 2002, we have screened nearly six billion passengers. Our front line officers have detected thousands of firearms and countless other prohibited items and we have prevented those weapons from entering the cabin of an aircraft.

In fact, more than 10 years after 9/11, TSA officers still detect, on-average, between three and four firearms every day in carry-on bags at security checkpoints around the country.

Deploying advanced, state-of-the-art technologies continue to factor significantly into our multi-layered approach to transportation security. In particular, we continue to see the efficacy of Advanced Imaging Technology, or AIT, machines at hundreds of passenger security checkpoints around the United States.

From February 2011 to June 2011, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) assessed the manner in which TSA inspects, maintains and operates backscatter units used in passenger screening.

The OIG found that TSA was in compliance with standards regarding radiation exposure limits and safety requirements. As a result of intensive research, analysis, and testing, TSA concludes that potential health risks from screening with backscatter X-ray security systems are minuscule.

While there is still no perfect technology, AIT gives our officers the best opportunity to detect both metallic and non-metallic threats including improvised explosive devices such as the device Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate on Christmas Day, 2009.

As manufacturers continue enhancing the detection capability and strengthening the privacy features of their machines, we maintain the ability to upgrade the software used on them to stay ahead of the rapidly shifting threat landscape. Maintaining a high level of adaptability enables us to keep an important technological advantage.

Throughout 2011, this and other technologies helped our officers detect hundreds of prohibited, dangerous, or illegal items on passengers.

These “good catches” as we call them, illustrate how effective our people, process and technology are at finding concealed metallic and non-metallic items concealed on a passenger or in their bags.

In an ongoing effort to help educate the traveling public, we highlight many of these good catches every week in blog posts uploaded to I hope some of you have seen these. They have included incidents of items concealed in shoes, to weapons hidden in a hollowed out book, to ceramic knives, to exotic snakes strapped to a passenger’s leg. As strange as some of these tales may be, they are a stark reminder that now — more than 10 years after the September 11, 2001, attacks — people are still trying to bring deadly weapons onto aircraft. And our officers are detecting numerous weapons every day and keeping them off of planes.

Less than one month ago in fact, over Presidents Day weekend in February, our officers detected 19 guns in carry-on bags at various checkpoints around the country. In total, 1,306 guns were detected at airport checkpoints in 2011.

It’s important to note that, while working hard to deploy the latest technological advancements to secure transportation, we have also taken significant steps to strengthen privacy protections for passengers screened with Advanced Imaging Technology.

Last fall, we upgraded all of our millimeter wave units nationwide with new privacy protection software called automated target recognition. This software upgrade further enhances privacy protections by eliminating passenger-specific images and displaying instead a generic outline of a person.

We know that this software also makes the process more efficient. Anytime a piece of new technology strengthens security, provides enhanced privacy protections and gives greater resource efficiency — that’s a winning formula for all travelers.

As good as they are, technologies such as this one do not stand alone. That’s why we continue our efforts to strengthen, whenever possible, standard operating procedures already in place throughout the roughly 450 airports we secure.

One of the ways we’re doing this is by developing and putting into practice a series of risk-based, intelligence-driven processes to further strengthen aviation security. In 2011, we implemented several new screening concepts, including a program designed to verify the identity of airline pilots, and provide expedited screening, adjustments in screening procedures for children 12 and under, and the use of expanded behavior detection techniques.

Perhaps the most widely known security enhancement are putting in place is TSA Pre✓™, one of several risk-based, intelligence-driven measures currently helping our agency move away from a one-size-fits-all security model and closer to its goal of providing the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way possible. Now one-size fits all was necessary after 9/11 and has been effective, but thanks to two key enablers, technology and intelligence, we’re able to being moving toward a risk-based security model.

These initiatives are enabling us to focus our resources on those passengers who could pose the greatest risk — including those on terrorist watch lists — while providing expedited screening, and perhaps a better travel experience, to those we consider our low-risk, trusted travelers.

We began implementing this idea last fall and since then, at the nine airports currently participating, more than 460,000 passengers around the country have experienced expedited security screening through TSA Pre✓™ and the feedback we’ve been getting is consistently positive.

The success of TSA Pre✓™ has been made possible by the great partnerships with our participating airlines and airports and our sister component, CBP.

The airlines work with us to invite eligible passengers to opt into the initiative and working with CBP we are able to extend TSA Pre✓™ benefits to any US citizen who is a member of one of CBP’s Trusted Traveler programs, like Global Entry.

I encourage anyone who is interested to apply for Global Entry. If you get accepted you get benefits from both CBP and TSA at participating airports.

By the end of 2012, we expect to be offering passengers in 35 of our busiest airports the expedited screening benefits associated with TSA Pre✓™.

By constantly evaluating new ideas and adding strength to layers of security throughout the screening process, we can accomplish several things.

First of all, these efforts allow our officers to focus their attention on those travelers we believe are more likely to pose a risk to our transportation network. Focusing our efforts in a more precise manner is not only good for strengthening aviation security, but also for improving the overall travel experience for the millions of people who fly in the United States every day.

Later this month TSA will begin evaluating additional risk-based, intelligence-driven changes to checkpoint security screening procedures.

Our ability to find the proverbial needle in the haystack is improved every time we are able to reduce the size of the haystack. Strengthening our screening procedures with risk-based initiatives such as TSA Pre✓™ is getting this done and we will continue expanding this program whenever we can.

We also continue to explore ways to adjust our standard security screening procedures for certain segments of the general traveling public - as we did last year with younger travelers.

In addition to expanding our use of intelligence, we are also using the risk assessment model that drives the airline industry’s known crewmember effort in other ways. By the end of the month, we will expand the TSA Pre✓™ population to include active duty U.S. Armed Forces members with a Common Access Card, or CAC, traveling out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Service members will undergo the standard TSA Secure Flight pre-screening and if we are able to verify the service member is in good standing with the Department of Defense by scanning their CAC card at the airport, they will receive TSA Pre✓™ screening benefits, such as no longer removing their shoes or light jacket and allowing them to keep their laptop in its case and their 3-1-1 compliant bag in a carry-on.

In addition to active duty members of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, this evaluation will also include active drilling members of the U.S. National Guard and reservists.

U.S. service members are entrusted to protect and defend our nation and its citizens with their lives, and as such TSA is recognizing that these members pose little risk to aviation security.

As we review and evaluate the effectiveness of these possible enhancements, additional changes to the security screening process may be implemented in the future as TSA continues to work toward providing all travelers with the most effective security in the most efficient way possible.

Of course, TSA will always retain the ability to incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport, and no individual is ever guaranteed expedited screening.

We appreciate the ongoing support and cooperation of the aviation industry and the traveling public as we strive to continue strengthening transportation security and improving, whenever possible the overall travel experience for all Americans. There are also significant economic benefits to strengthening aviation security, most notably in the area of cargo security and our ability to facilitate the secure movement of goods. The interconnectedness and interdependence of the global economy requires that every link in the global supply chain be as strong as possible. Whether it is for business or for pleasure, the freedom to travel from place to place is fundamental to our way of life, and to do so securely is a goal to which everyone at TSA is fully committed.

Thank you again for joining me this afternoon, and at this time I will answer any questions you may have.