TSA chief tested as terror threats move to the streets

TSA chief tested as terror threats move to the streets
© Greg Nash

David Pekoske is leading the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at a time when the 16-year-old agency is grappling with a difficult challenge: how to protect mass transit systems from attacks as terrorists shift their targets from the skies to the streets.

Just this week there was an attempted terrorist attack on a busy New York City transit hub, underscoring how terrorists are switching tactics in the face of strengthened aviation security.

“The primary goal is to ever increase the effectiveness of the security we provide, not just in the aviation sector, but also in the surface transportation sector,” Pekoske said in an interview with The Hill this week. “And actually that’s even more front of mind today than it was over the weekend, with the bomber up in New York City.”

Prior to heading up the TSA, Pekoske was a vice commandant for the U.S. Coast Guard, where he led all operations in the Western Hemisphere. After retiring Pekoske worked for a D.C.-based security services firm where he helped provide counterterrorism, security and intelligence support services to government agencies.

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The 33-year veteran of the Coast Guard came back to the government when he was sworn in as TSA administrator in August, becoming the agency’s seventh permanent leader in 16 years. Pekoske now oversees a workforce of approximately 60,000 employees.

The new TSA chief is hoping to bring some stability to the agency, which has sometimes had a tumultuous relationship with Congress and the public.

A key focus of Pekoske’s agenda for the TSA is to improve safety in the public spaces outside of screening areas.

While most people envision airports when they think of the TSA — reasonably so, since it was created in direct response to the 9/11 terror attacks — the agency’s mission actually includes sharing security responsibilities with highways, railroads, ports, mass transit systems and pipelines.

“Our role in surface transportation is evolving and maturing,” Pekoske said. “Our goal is to stay many steps ahead of our adversaries. If our adversaries focus more and more attention on surface transportation issues, to keep ahead of them, our focus becomes more and more toward surface transportation as well.”

But surface transportation has a unique set of security challenges, especially since passengers don’t have to go through TSA security checkpoints to board a bus or train.

“The major difference is we actually provide the aviation security,” Pekoske said. “On the surface transportation side, owners and operators of those systems provide security, but we provide guidelines, information and assistance as they need it.”

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula this summer published instructions in an online edition of its English language propaganda magazine on how to derail trains and assault stations in Europe and the U.S., which can be easier than carrying out attacks on planes.

One way the TSA is tackling the threat to mass transit is testing out a new screening technology that can detect suicide vests in transit hubs and other soft-target areas.

The TSA announced Wednesday that it has partnered with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to test the explosive screening system, known as a standoff explosive detection unit. The technology has already been used for big events such as the Super Bowl.

The device can tell whether an individual is wearing a person-borne improvised explosive device by identifying any metallic or non-metallic objects that are blocking the naturally occurring emissions from a person’s body.

Other ways to combat potential attacks include deploying bomb-sniffing dog teams to hot spots, issuing guidelines to stakeholders, hosting security summits and communicating intelligence threats to transit partners.

But some members of Congress say the agency could be doing more. Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Democrats seize on whistleblower complaint to push for election security | Google taps GOP Senate aide to lead lobbying | Warren calls for congressional tech office Democrats seize on whistleblower report to push for election security House Homeland Security chairman: 'This is election interference' MORE (D-Miss.), ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Bonnie Watson ColemanBonnie Watson ColemanA dozen House Democrats call on EU ambassador to resign amid Ukraine scandal Democrats seize on viral Sharpie hashtags to mock Trump map edit Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment MORE (D-N.J.) have urged the TSA to implement two overdue mandates aimed at hardening surface transportation systems from attacks.

In a letter to Pekoske this week, the lawmakers expressed concern that the TSA has not issued a final rule requiring public transportation agencies to establish security training programs or finalized security plans for “high-risk” transit systems.

“Given the attack on mass transit in New York this week ... we urge you to intensify efforts to make progress on these key surface transportation mandates,” the members wrote.

Pekoske is also juggling constantly changing threats to the aviation sector.

Recent intelligence shows that terrorists have been exploring innovative ways to smuggle bombs onto planes, prompting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to temporarily issue a laptop ban on the cabins of certain U.S.-bound flights earlier this year.

“In fact, on the aviation side, the threat is as present as it was on 9/11. It’s just evolved,” Pekoske said.

Right before Pekoske took over the TSA, the DHS rolled out a new global aviation security plan that imposed new screening standards for airlines and airports around the world. The effort is being implemented in phases, with the DHS now focused on the second stage, Pekoske said.

U.S. airports are also facing stricter protocols, with passengers now required to put electronics larger than a cellphone into separate bins for screening. And the agency is also scrambling to plug potential security gaps after a damning internal audit exposed flaws in the agency’s screening system.

The TSA is trying to provide strict screenings while keeping security lines moving, which is an ongoing challenge. But given the record travel volumes around the holidays this year, some feared that wait times at airports could spike — a problem that plagued Pekoske's predecessor.

So far, however, the checkpoint lines have been under control. And Pekoske views the audit as a chance to identify and fix security vulnerabilities in the system.

“I look at that as an opportunity to close some vulnerabilities,” Pekoske said. “And we’re rapidly moving to do that.”