A TSA Chief Retires on His Own Terms

John Pistole survived longer than anyone else atop the agency that everyone loves to hate.

Molly Riley/AP

The administrator of the Transportation Security Agency, John Pistole, is retiring of his own accord at the end of 2014 after four-and-a-half years on the job. In today's Washington, that's an achievement in itself.

Pistole's run is even more impressive considering the TSA's status as one of the government's most unloved departments, perhaps second only to the Postal Service if measured by the number of muttered obscenities it inspires on a daily basis. He will leave as the longest-serving administrator in the agency's (admittedly short) 13-year history, having largely escaped the partisan wringer that has ensnared the leaders of departments, like the Veterans Administration, and more recently the CDC, that have traditionally been held in higher esteem.

If the next few months go quietly, Pistole's most important legacy clearly would be keeping the nation's air travelers safe. There has been a terrorist attack and an alarming number of mass shootings in the U.S. in the last half decade, including one at Los Angeles International Airport a year ago that left one TSA agent dead and several others wounded. But nothing has approached the 9/11 horrors that spawned the creation of the agency, and if there has been a close call like the "underwear bomber" that nearly detonated explosives aboard a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day in 2009, we don't know about it.

That isn't to say that Pistole has completely escaped controversy or made the TSA as invisible to the public as most travelers would like it be. Flying in the U.S. isn't any more pleasant than when Pistole took over; the lines are often too long, the searches are invasive, most people still have to take off their shoes, and the containers that hold keys and chains are still the same as doggie bowls.

But a transformation of the flying experience was never his charge, or his goal. As Pistole explained to Jeffrey Goldberg and James Fallows in 2010, the TSA can never "eliminate risk," nor could he envision a time in the near future when security would be as smooth as strolling through a machine without the possibility of a pat-down. His job, at least in part, is to strike a balance between security and privacy, and the debate of whether he succeeded will go on.

Pistole, meanwhile, will head home in January without any measure of celebrity attached to his name. For a TSA chief, that's probably just as well.