TSA head wants 'risk based,' tailor-made airport screening

The head of the TSA wants to implement a new “risk-based” screening method over the next year that will tailor-fit airport security procedures to individuals based on intelligence and suspicious behavior.

John Pistole, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), told lawmakers about the new screening tactics at a hearing Thursday before the House Homeland Security’s subcommittee on Transportation Security.


Pistole did not delve into great detail about the developing screening techniques, but he did say that they would essentially be a way for security officers to pre-screen passengers before they boarded a plane.

“We do use a one-size-fits-all approach, which I don’t think is either efficient or beneficial for the traveling public or for security,” said Pistole.

“So what I’d like to do is spend more time with those that we assess, based on all of the information available to us…either from intelligence or information that’s been volunteered to us by the passenger, or that we glean perhaps from a behavior detection officer noticing something suspicious about the person.”

“That’s where we’re moving to, and…I’m committed to doing something this year that would demonstrate the different paradigm for how we go about doing passenger screening, who we screen and how we screen.”

Pistole said that he was taking both privacy issues and civil liberty concerns into consideration as he was developing the screening methods, which would “use a risk-based approach and [take] more of what we know about the person, [do] some pre-screening basically, [for] a more identity-based screening, as opposed to the full physical screening.”

The TSA constantly adjusts its screening methods to specific intelligence reports as they come in. For example, Pistole said that shortly before Christmas Day last year – just one year after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up a plane headed to Detroit – they received reports that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was attempting to wrap the same type of explosive around the inside of a thermos. As a result, airport security officers vigilantly inspected all thermoses.

Pistole’s testimony before the subcommittee comes as the TSA recently unrolled a new version of its advanced imaging technology at three major airports throughout the country. The new version, which is being field tested over the next two months, produces block-like images of the people being screened instead of the highly controversial life-like depictions that caused a furor late last year.

The Government Accountability Office just completed its latest series of covert tests in which it tried to find weak points in the TSA’s screening methods. And Pistole said that the GAO usually “beats us every time because of their innovative techniques. But they said that this most recent test they did in January they found to be the most thorough and the best.”

Pistole said he’s gotten a good response from the Las Vegas airport about the new advanced imaging systems because the passenger and the security officer see the image at the same time, which gives them a greater degree of confidence about what’s showing up on the screen. There had been complaints under the previous technology that the image depicted on the screen was very close to a nude picture of the person, and the passenger was not able to see it, making them feel vulnerable.

Pistole said that while the technology was a stark improvement, it was not “foolproof.”

“It’s actually the same equipment, just a different depiction of the image,” said Pistole. “We believe it’s the best available technology to detect those types of non-metallic bombs such as Abdulmutallab had on Christmas Day. But it’s not foolproof. There’s no 100 percent guarantee silver bullet here. It’s just the best technology available today and we’re always trying to improve that.”

Pistole said that he is kept awake at night by the thought of “the unknown; that somebody we have not identified being able to do something and we miss it.”