TSA Chief John Pistole Gets Into a Knife Fight

The TSA chief causes an uproar by allowing pocketknives on planes
Photograph by Tony Hutchings

One of the first things John Pistole did when he became head of the Transportation Security Administration in 2010 was to scrutinize the TSA’s “prohibited items list”—the catalogue of pocketknives, corkscrews, and snow globes that blue-shirted TSA workers at the airport snatch from pockets and luggage. Pistole and the agency’s senior officials spent the next two years consulting with terrorism experts to determine which items on the list were legitimate threats and which should be allowed back onboard. “We’ve received input from the flying public for years about the hassle factor associated with the number of prohibited items,” Pistole told reporters on March 14. “It’s been made very clear.”

John Pistole
Photograph by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

A decade ago, when the TSA was thrown together in the panicky weeks after Sept. 11, it may have comforted passengers to know the government was on the lookout for sharp objects like the box cutters the terrorists used to attack the pilots and take over the airplanes. With pilots now barricaded (and sometimes armed) behind a reinforced cockpit door and passengers attuned to suspicious activity, Pistole and his team concluded it no longer made sense for his agency to confiscate 2,000 knives a day—especially when scissors, knitting needles, and screwdrivers are already on the approved list.

Pistole is now discovering how frustrating it can be for the head of a government bureaucracy to make even incremental changes. When he announced this month that the TSA will ease restrictions on items including knives less than 6 cm (2.36 inches) long, hockey sticks, and golf clubs, unions representing flight attendants, airline pilots—even his own TSA screeners—accused him of putting the public at risk. It’s “insanity,” says Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents more than 16,000 American Airlines employees. Her members have enough trouble calming agitated customers without bringing knives and bats into the mix, she says. “They don’t think keeping passengers safe from each other is part of their mission,” Glading says. “They’re defining their responsibility as preventing an aircraft from diving into the ground, into a building, or blowing up a plane in the sky.”

That’s exactly how Pistole defines his responsibility. At a hearing on Capitol Hill to explain his decision, he said bluntly that it’s the airlines’ job to pacify unruly passengers. His agency exists only to prevent terrorists from bringing down planes. “It is the judgment of many security experts worldwide, which I agree with, that a small pocketknife is simply not going to result in catastrophic failure of an aircraft,” he said. Pistole explained he’s trying to “apply more common sense to aviation security,” and said the unions’ fears of knife-wielding travelers going berserk are unfounded. “We’ve had billions of passengers” travel on planes with knitting needles and scissors, he said, “and there has not been a single incident involving an attack on passengers, flight crews, federal air marshals, anybody.” (Don’t try to sneak that bottle of Diet Coke past the screeners, though: The TSA still considers the possibility of liquid explosives a serious threat.)

Pistole, who spent 26 years at the FBI, has said he wants the TSA to evolve from its beginnings as a security force that assumes everyone might be a terrorist. He envisions an intelligence-driven agency that uses information about passengers to assess risk before they arrive at the airport. That may include their age, occupation, criminal record, and how often they fly.

The TSA’s PreCheck program, Pistole’s first big initiative, was intended to let approved passengers go through a roped-off express security line without removing their coats and shoes. After almost two years the TSA says passengers have used the program’s special screening lines 7 million times. That sounds like a lot, until you consider that about 2 million people travel by air in the U.S. each day. The program has led to lots of grumbling about unfairness and longer wait lines for everyone else.

The flight attendants’ and other unions are pushing hard for Pistole to reverse his ruling. TSA screeners complain they’ll wind up getting into endless squabbles with passengers who try to bring on knives that are a little too long. Unlike other agency heads, though, Pistole has the luxury of largely ignoring his critics. The law that created the TSA gives him the authority to make changes like this without public hearings or the approval of Congress, and he didn’t seek the blessing of outsiders: Union officials learned about it just before the announcement. So far his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano—and her boss, Obama—have seemed content to let Pistole run the agency and take the credit, or blame, for his decisions. “Now you can have a conversation about what the role of the TSA is,” says Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association, which promotes the tourism industry. “It’s the type of conversation we should have had a while ago.”


    The bottom line: Pistole says the TSA’s mission is keeping terrorists from bringing down planes, not policing travelers for hockey sticks and penknives.

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