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July 28, 2012
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TSA head at Aspen forum: The shoe still fits

ASPEN - The inconveniences and hassles associated with air travel these days - removing shoes and liquids at airport security checkpoints, for example - are here to stay, John Pistole, chief of the Transportation Security Administration, said Friday.

Pistole, appearing at the Aspen Security Forum in a one-on-one interview with ABC "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran, spent more than an hour explaining the TSA's missions and vulnerabilities before a packed audience at the Aspen Meadows' Doerr-Hosier Center.

"Clearly we've had success in not having a repeat of 9/11," Pistole said, noting that, "We can't go back to the pre-9/11 days."

That is, unless, travelers are enrolled in TSA's PreCheck program. For $100 and a background check, flyers can avoid body scans and dropping their shoes, belt, jacket, laptop, toiletries and other potentially suspicious items at the TSA checkpoints.

Still in its infancy, the program, which announced that its 2 millionth passenger went through PreCheck on Thursday, is in place at 16 U.S. airports, "and we expect to expand to 35 airports," Pistole said. He did not mention Aspen's airport as a candidate for the program.

A 27-year veteran of the FBI who took the helm of the agency in July 2010, Pistole admitted that the TSA has had its vulnerabilities, at the prodding of Moran.

Moran remarked that the TSA has appeared to be a reactive agency - it implemented a shoe-removal policy for all passengers after the botched airline bombing attempt in December 2001 by Richard Reid, also known as the "Shoe Bomber;" liquid carry-on restrictions were enforced in the wake of a foiled liquid-explosive bomb plot in August 2006 in the U.K.

"It seems we've always been one step behind," Moran said.

The after-the-fact policies are the product of an agency that's just a decade old, Pistole said.

"We have progressed with the advent of technology," he said.

Part of that progression has included adjusting its explosive detection devices, which earlier this year resulted in the interception of an upgraded type of underwear bomb by a double-agent in Yemen, where an al-Qaida affiliate had planned to destroy an airline bound for the U.S.

One audience member pointed out that when she flies out of Japan, she is not required to remove her shoes and there are no restrictions on carry-on liquids. And air travelers in the European Union also don't have to remove their shoes at checkpoints.

"Why do I have to take my shoes off?" Moran asked Pistole.

Essentially, the TSA head said, it's not a risk his agency is willing to take.

The TSA's emphasis is obviously is on air travel, as evidenced by 97 percent of its resources being dedicated to aviation, Pistole said. But ground travel on subways, buses and trains is a concern, and that's where the TSA is "most vulnerable," he said.

"More people have been killed in rail attacks than aviation over the last 10 years," he said, adding that "but because 9/11 involved aviation in the U.S., that's our (priority)."

The notion that the TSA profiles air travelers based on their ethnicity or home countries is not true, Pistole said.

"Terrorism has no face," he said.

The profile question emerged several times during the discussion, and Pistole said that any scrutiny suspicious passengers may be subjected to is "not based on ethnicity, but travel patterns," and is a result of intelligence provided by such agencies as the FBI, CIA and law-enforcement.

The TSA has a labor force of 60,000, 47,000 of whom are security officers and 24,000 who work part time. Trimming the staff at a time when the federal government looks at ways to cut costs is not on the table, Pistole said.

There are "no discussions about reducing the work force," he said.

The Security Forum, hosted by the Aspen Institute, concludes Saturday. Go to www.aspensecurityforum.org/agenda1 for the program schedule.


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The Aspen Times Updated Jul 28, 2012 09:22AM Published Jul 28, 2012 01:45AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.