The Pistole Tapes: The Atlantic Meets the TSA

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No arm of the government has taken more grief from Atlantic writers, more often, over a longer period of time, than the Transportation Security Administration. Naturally I think that the criticism -- from Jeffrey Goldberg, from me, from Bruce Schneier and others in guest essays -- has been perfectly reasonable and fair. But it's conceivable that TSA officials would disagree. Recently John Pistole, the new (since July) Administrator of the TSA agreed to an interview. Two days ago, Jeff Goldberg and I went to his office and spent a little under in an hour in an on-the-record interview.

The transcript of the discussion is here, and Jeff Goldberg's initial account of the session is here. The transcript is long, and later today I'll say more about some of the points Pistole made (and finessed) about what the TSA is trying to do.

For the moment, a bit of atmosphere. Jeff Goldberg and I allowed 20 minutes for the taxi ride from the Atlantic's office to the TSA office near National Airport; arrived in eight; and loitered for a while as government contractors, with badges, waited to get cleared into the building. When our turn came, naturally we had to go through a security screening -- standard in government buildings these recent years. There were familiar rubberish trays, just like at an airport, with a conveyor belt to send them through an x-ray machine. (Disappointingly, the screening was by a contract security service, not by TSA's own blue-shirts.) "What do I have to put in the tray?" I asked. "Pretty much like at the airport," the young woman doing the screening said.

Jeff Goldberg put phone, pens, keys into the tray, sent them on the belt to be x-rayed, and walked right through the metal detector to the other side. I put phone, pens, keys into the tray, walked through the metal detector -- and set off a big alarm. "Those shoes are going to have to come off," the agent said. "Are you kidding?" I started to say -- and then, realizing "Hey, this is the TSA mother ship!", I unlaced my shoes, took them off, sent them through the x-ray machine, and was cleared through the metal-detector myself.

Here is the point. When we met Pistole five minutes later, I told him that I thought it was a particularly wry touch to have visitors take off their shoes when coming to the TSA's home. "Are you kidding?" he said. He couldn't believe I'd had to do that. I took it as a hopeful sign of his potential for applying a common-sense perspective to security procedures.

For the details, see the interview, and further updates soon.

These are not my shoes, but this was the idea:
ShoesinaTray.jpg

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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