The nation's top airport security official paid his first visit to the world's busiest airport this week, meeting with his agency's employees here and speaking to a business aviation convention.
John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and a former deputy director of the FBI, took the TSA's helm four months ago after being nominated by President Obama.
While in Atlanta he spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the state of airport security generally as well as at Hartsfield-Jackson International, where the TSA will roll out more full-body imaging machines and is preparing to staff up for a new international terminal:
Q: What do you think of the TSA's historical balance between maintaining throughput and increasing the layers of security, and where would you hope to take that?
A: I see my job and really TSA's job as one of really managing risk. So my goal is to ensure that we provide the best possible security for the traveling public but doing it in a way that provides greater scrutiny to those that need greater scrutiny, and so we don't use a cookie cutter approach for everybody. Right now we use somewhat of a blunt instrument to screen virtually everybody the same away. And my goal is to use intelligence in a more informed fashion so we can apply greater scrutiny to those who need it and keep up with throughput in that fashion.
Q: Who are the people that need greater scrutiny?
A: Clearly those who are on any type of watch list. But there are [also] those who a behavior detection officer may identify.
Q: Do you think Atlanta may get additional funding or increased staffing from the TSA in the future?
A: Clearly there will be additional Advanced Imaging Technology machines here, and with the opening of the international terminal in 2012 there will be additional staffing. (There are 14 AIT machines at Hartsfield-Jackson now; TSA plans to add hundreds more AIT machines across the country to have 1,000 deployed nationally by the end of next year.) We're reviewing that situation now and of course with the Southwest-AirTran (acquisition) we'll see how that will affect traffic here and we'll try to be flexible and adaptable.
Q: When will the liquids ban be discontinued?
A: The European Parliament that says that in April 2013 all flights in the EU will be able to have liquids on again. I'm hoping that the technology will develop, but that was a political decision, not a technology decision. So the European Parliament is trying to drive the technology by saying, ‘Here's a date certain.' Until we have the technology that can detect with a fairly high level of accuracy, I'm not comfortable in relaxing that ban quite yet.
Q: When will AIT machines completely replace metal detectors?
A: Part of that depends on funding, from Congress and the Administration. So we're looking at several years. There's 2,200 lanes across the country. One question would be whether Congress and the Administration assesses that having 100 percent AIT coverage is necessary.
Q: Do you think it's necessary?
A: I think it's important to have the best technology, whether it's that or the automated target recognition, which is the stick figure instead of the image, which addresses privacy issues. What I don't want to see happen is terrorists going on a website and seeing where there is AIT and where there's walk-through metal detectors and using, like on Christmas Day, a non-metallic explosive device through one of those airports that does not have AIT. So that's my concern. So we'll see how that all resolves.
Q: How do you plan to address the privacy issues with AIT machines?
A: Well, trying to reassure the public that first, it's optional. They don't have to go through it. Of course they will receive a thorough patdown. The person seeing the image never sees the person. We don't retain the image. I think that addresses most of the privacy concerns.
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