DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now let's hear about a man whose leadership has impacted anyone who travels by air. John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration which screens air passengers, is leaving his job this month after four and a half years. He'll become president of a Christian university in Indiana. NPR's Brian Naylor looks back on his tenure.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: After 31 years at the FBI, perhaps the nation's most respected law enforcement agency, John Pistole was asked to lead one with a less lofty reputation. And in his time at TSA, Pistole has tried to raise standards. There is a new training academy for supervisors and an office of professional responsibility. Still, the TSA and its pesky list of prohibited items is an easy target for satire, like this sketch from "Key And Peele" on Comedy Central last week. They portrayed members of a frustrated al-Qaida-like terrorist group plotting in a cave.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY AND PEELE")
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Khalil) Why have we not taken a plane in 13 years?
JORDAN PEELE: (As character) Khalil, you don't even know. It is all because the cunning and mighty TSA is always one step ahead of us.
KEY: (As Khalil) I do not believe it.
PEELE: (As character) It's true.
NAYLOR: Pistole had not seen the sketch, but he gets the joke. He says TSA has taken steps that allow half of those who travel to go through expedited screening - the old and very young and those in the Precheck program. That's where if you pay $85 and undergo a background check, you can avoid some of the annoyances of post-9/11 air travel.
JOHN PISTOLE: With nearly half the people that we screen every day being able to go through TSA Precheck, they can keep their shoes on. So that's nearly 2 million shoes a day that people can keep on and their liquids, aerosol gels and laptop computer being kept in their bags. So those are clearly improvements in terms of our efficiencies.
NAYLOR: But the question of how best to identify those who are serious threats to attack an airliner remains a work in progress. Foreign fighters who have been in Syria or Iraq coming back to Europe or the U.S. are a concern. Pistole says his biggest worry over the years has been a terrorist not known to law enforcement here or abroad, and therefore not on any watch lists, carrying something the equipment cannot detect.
PISTOLE: The primary threat is still the nonmetallic improvised explosive device, the IED, that a person can have on their person, go through or walk through a metal detector, which is common worldwide, and never set off an alarm.
NAYLOR: So travelers to the U.S. from some countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East undergo increased security screening. But he notes there are so many airports to watch. Under Pistole, the TSA has also put more importance on behavioral detection methods, which he says are working.
PISTOLE: I believe that our behavioral detection officers do a good job of identifying people who are acting suspiciously without profiling. That's one of the key aspects - is make sure that they're not profiling.
NAYLOR: But the Government Accountability Office issued a report earlier this month that did question whether the agency has sufficiently tested those methods. Pistole says the TSA will be making some modifications in response to the GAO's findings. He says the TSA has moved from a one-size-fits-all approach to aviation security to a more professional, risk-based approach. Pistole is most proud of the increased efficiencies that have allowed him to eliminate some 5,000 screeners off the TSA's payroll and return $100 million to the Treasury. One final note - Pistole says there is no current elevated threat to holiday travel. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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