‘We’ll Never Eliminate Risk’
Dec 8 2010, 8:30 AM ET 17
Ever since new airport security procedures went into effect in late October, the Transportation Security Administration has been at the center of controversy. The combination of enhanced image screening with invasive patdowns for those who opt out has rankled civil liberties advocates and some of the flying public. John Pistole, the head of the TSA, is a 26-year veteran of the FBI — an expert in counterterrorism and for six years the bureau’s deputy director. As TSA administrator since July, he finds himself having to defend the new measures. James Fallows and Jeffrey Goldberg spoke with Pistole on Monday. An edited version of the interview is below; their posts about the conversation are here and here.
James Fallows: I’d like to start with a question both Jeff and I have raised, which is the whole question of the balance between security, on the one hand, and liberty and privacy concerns, on the other. Is it TSA’s job to set that balance? Or how do you think that balance is set?
John Pistole: The way I view it is for TSA to develop the security protocols that afford the best security, while recognizing that there is a balance. The best security would be something way beyond what we’re doing.
Jeffrey Goldberg: The best security would be to just not allow people on planes. That’s perfect security.
Pistole: That’s “risk elimination.” And we’re not in the risk-elimination business, we’re in risk mitigation, informed by the latest intelligence, informed by our friends [in the intelligence agencies], and informed by the results of our covert testing.
Those things inform judgments and actions and then we take that information — I take that information — and then ask the experts how can we address these threats? They come up with different things based on all the information they have, and then they make a recommendation, and then it’s up to me to say, OK, does that exceed what I think is appropriate in terms of privacy?
So that’s my responsibility. To say, does this give us security, without violating something that would be a Fourth Amendment issue? That’s what I did in this situation [the latest controversy] — being informed by my prior background [with the FBI], and seeing this as different from a law-enforcement Fourth Amendment search, for example on the pat-down, and the privacy of the AIT (the controversial scanner).
How do we go about deploying this privacy screening? Separate officer, separate room, not retaining the images. You’ve seen these posters, and you realize, it’s not as graphic (as has been reported). A lot of the media reporting showed these graphic images, and they rotated through 360 degrees so you get almost a crotch shot – that’s not what these are. A lot of informed people describe these, I think in some of your writing, as the “naked” machine, or the porno –
Fallows: — Jeff has a description [“porn machine”] that I don’t use —
Goldberg: — Fallows is very statesmanlike.
Pistole: I thought of bringing something in that actually was pornographic. I could say to you, then, “This is porno, this is not.” I’ll recognize it when I see it.
Goldberg: Exactly, the Supreme Court standard.
Do you agree with the civil libertarian view that airports — not just because of the TSA — but airports have become these Fourth Amendment-free zones? This is the fundamental concern, that you’re giving up your Fourth Amendment rights when you buy a ticket.
The only way you can eliminate the risk of planes blowing up is nobody flies.
Pistole: I don’t agree with that. But I do agree with the difference between what most people think of in terms of a reasonable search-and-seizure for purposes of law enforcement, versus a public-safety administrative search. I don’t know if people are drawing that distinction, either, from a legal standpoint or a practical application. I think people don’t look at the public safety aspect. They look at it strictly from — as I did for almost 27 years (in the FBI)