MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Secretary Johnson's statement about Homeland Security's inspector general report says, and I'll quote here, "the numbers in these reports never look good out of context."
And in fact, the TSA has been through similar tests and firestorms before, so what is the context we're missing when we hear that airport screeners missed a high percentage of threats? We're going to put that question to John Pistole. He was head of the TSA from 2010 to 2014.
Welcome to the program.
JOHN PISTOLE: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: First why don't you explain how these tests of airport screeners work. They're carried out by a group that's known as the Red Team. What does it do?
PISTOLE: Yeah, so there's actually several teams, Melissa. One is by the inspector general for the Department Homeland Security. There's also the Red Team testing done by the Government Accountability Office and also TSA has their own inspectors, if you will. So it's all designed to improve security screening by identifying vulnerabilities and ways that terrorists might be trying exploit those vulnerabilities.
BLOCK: And specifically what might they be trying to smuggle through and how?
PISTOLE: Yeah, so it varies, but for example, if it's on the body scanners, those will pick up not only metallic items but also non-metallics, which terrorists - al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula particularly - has been focused on using to blow-up Western aircraft. And so it may be how well the body scanners can detect smaller and smaller amounts of things that might be considered anomalous. So there's any number of testings to assess, again, potential vulnerabilities.
BLOCK: And again, according to the ABC News report, 95 percent of these test cases got past the screeners. Seems that we've heard this before. There was a case back in 2007 when Congress was also concerned about high failure rate - 70 percent failure rate overall, 90 percent at the Denver Airport.
So it doesn't seem like much has changed. How concerned are you about that?
PISTOLE: Well, it's obviously very disconcerting. We know that no system is 100 percent, but it's a great concern that that would be the result, given all the improvements that have been made over the last several years. So that's why they're, I think, really looking at a back-to-basics approach to say what did we miss, how did we miss it, and how do we move forward here in an efficient and professional way that facilitates the free movement of people and goods?
BLOCK: You testified on this question back in 2013, when you were the head of the TSA, testified before Congress. And the point you were making was that these Red Team members are so familiar with security policies, know how to evade the system, that they're doing things that the best terrorists wouldn't be able to do. Those were your words. Explain what you mean by that.
PISTOLE: Sure. The distinction between the Red Team testers and actual terrorists are the Red Team testers do know the standard operating procedures. They know the technical capabilities of the machines so they can actually construct things that can be used. And then the key here is that there's no intelligence about anything bad going on because they're covert testers. When you take that out of the equation, it makes it more of a test of a very narrow part of those multiple layers of security.
BLOCK: According to ABC though, one of the things that was not detected was a fake explosive device that was taped to the agent's back that was not found during a pat-down.
PISTOLE: Yeah, so the first question that I would ask is, did the technology detect it? And if so, you would typically indicate the officer did not either follow the SOP properly, or there's social engineering between the covert tester - saying, I just had surgery recently so I know you need to do a pat-down, but if you can just be very gentle.
See, there's any number of variables. I would be interested in knowing, for example, the experience level of the officers. But TSA and DHS, Secretary Johnson, completely get this. You can take this however bad it is on the face. You can learn from it and improve the system, and I think that's the key.
BLOCK: John Pistole, thanks for talking with us today.
PISTOLE: It was good to talk to you.
BLOCK: John Pistole was head of the Transportation Security Administration from 2010 to 2014. He's now president of Anderson University in Indiana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.