Conservative activists threw a party last night to praise San Diego software engineer John Tyner, who became an Internet sensation when he threatened to have security agents arrested if they touched his "junk" during a pat-down.
One person who coincidentally was also in town but did not attend was Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole.
Pistole was unaware of his fluke timing and shrugged off Tyner's rise to relative fame after he refused to enter a full-body imaging scanner and objected to agents' attempts to pat him down before he boarded his flight. Tyner's allure grew in part from his catch-phrase: "Don't touch my junk."
"With YouTube, it's the way of becoming famous or infamous or whatever," Pistole said, dismissing the hype surrounding Tyner. "People are looking for that opportunity and some things galvanize people."
In Las Vegas, critics of the new security measures could have jump-started the protests that spread across the country shortly before Thanksgiving.
McCarran International Airport was one of two airports where the pat-down pilot program was implemented in early September; Logan International Airport in Boston also was chosen. Full-body imaging scanners were first installed at McCarran more than two years ago.
Pistole cannot pinpoint what exactly triggered the recent firestorm. When the agency began testing passengers' responses in Las Vegas and Boston, he said the arm of the Department of Homeland Security received very few complaints.
"We got some comments, 'Are you doing something different now?' Well, yes we are," Pistole said. "We've also received compliments, 'That was thorough and you did it professionally.' "
When he took over the top job at the Transportation Security Administration in July, the former deputy director of the FBI said he never anticipated being in the middle of the fiery debate that has overtaken the country.
"It's not something I thought about, becoming the center of a constitutional crisis," he said. "That's the great thing about this country, people can express their opinions."
Pistole granted an exclusive interview with the Review-Journal on Friday to address some of the issues swirling around the pat-down controversy.
On why the federal government chose Las Vegas and Boston to test the pat-down procedures:
Pistole said that the attitudes of East Coast travelers differ from passengers on the West Coast.
"There are different demographics; in Las Vegas you have more tourists, and Boston there are commuters," he said. "Different clientele, different perspectives."
The new procedures were not announced because, Pistole said, while he believes in informing the public, that also means informing travelers who intend to harm Americans. If the test program and the airports being used were announced, terrorists could target those airports with older security procedures.
"I was concerned, frankly, someone would see that as a window of opportunity," he said.
On the argument that the government is wasting millions of dollars on the TSA
"I would be glad to discuss or debate anybody on that issue; we are clearly safer," Pistole said. "We can never eliminate risk but we can do things from an intelligence perspective to mitigate risks while being as least intrusive as possible."
Saudi Arabian officials tipped off the U.S. government to an al-Qaida plot to blow up two cargo planes using plastic ink cartridges that would have brought the aircraft down. Pistole said terrorist groups are constantly testing new devices that might not sound security alarms.
He emphasized that the Internet has become an effective tool in the recruitment terrorists. Al-Qaida recently published a new online magazine called Inspire, which informs its readers how to construct a non-metallic explosive and remove any residue that might be detected during the security process.
One of the magazine's main contributors is an American who has joined a Yemen terrorist group.
On profiling passengers
American travelers have taken offense to being subjected to pat-downs, arguing that they shouldn't be treated like potential terrorists. Conservative groups have pushed the federal government to begin profiling passengers and have complained that elderly people and children should not have to undergo enhanced security.
It's not that simple, Pistole said.
Pistole pointed to Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 detonated a moving van full of explosives in front of an Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people.
"A white guy, a veteran; how do we profile him?" Pistole said.
Two 64-year-old suicide bombers have successfully executed attacks in the Middle East. Pistole said if the security department set an age limits for pat-downs, terrorist organizations would navigate their way around them.
"As soon as we announce that 65 is the cut off, I am convinced al-Qaida would go out and recruit a grandma."
Recent reports that vocal critics of the new security procedures will end up on a terrorist watch list are false, he said. "Absolutely not," Pistole said. "The only reason somebody is on a watch list is because an agency has identified that person as a threat to aviation."
"The threats are real, serious business," Pistole said, adding that the next time an airplane blows up, critics will wonder why the TSA didn't do its job.
He said he doubts that one passenger who went through the layers of security without protesting wants to be seated next to a traveler who bowed out of the scanner and was never thoroughly checked. The TSA and its agents are the last line of security before an airliner departs.
Parents have expressed concerns that their young children are subjected to pat-downs by adult strangers. Pistole said that the agency's policy is not to physically search any child under the age of 12. As far as disabled passengers or travelers with artificial body parts, he said agents are trained to be as gracious and professional as possible.
Passengers have reported negative encounters with the TSA. Tom Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor, said his urostomy bag burst during a pat-down, causing urine to spill onto his clothing. Pistole reached out to Sawyer, apologized and promised to review the case.
Opponents of the pat-downs attempted to persuade passengers to tie up security lines by opting out of the scanners and undergo a pat-down the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year. Pistole said he was not surprised that the effort didn't take.
"The vast majority of travelers, as we hoped, just wanted to get on to be with their loved ones," he said. "People expressed appreciation, recognizing the threats out there are significant and we need the enhanced procedures to keep everyone safe. People want to arrive alive.
"In spite of the criticism we receive, there seems to be a gradual but significant shift in public appreciation."
On security on other modes of transportation
Pistole acknowledged that the federal government's focus is trained on air travel, leaving subways, train systems and buses more vulnerable to attacks.
In 2004, terrorists bombed trains in Madrid, killing 191 people. The rail systems in London and Moscow have also been attacked. Trains and subways in the United States are considered "softer targets," he said.
"After 9/11 the great emphasis was on aviation; the psychological impact of seeing a plane blown out of the sky was great," he said. "We do some (security on other types of transportation) but, frankly not enough. That is a concern of mine. We've been fortunate, frankly."
Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at email@example.com or 702-387-2904.