WASHINGTON – Each day, dozens of U.S. intelligence officials crowd around a conference table in a small, windowless room in a government building across the street from a shopping mall in northern Virginia. At the head of the table sits the man who perhaps more than anyone else affects Americans most tangibly in the sprawling fight against terrorism since the 2001 attacks.
John Pistole, who for decades breezed past airport security checkpoints as an FBI agent — is the faceless bane of every air traveler who must remove his belt, endures an intimate pat-down or is instructed to throw away a 6-ounce bottle of shampoo.
Pistole, 53, has among the least-desirable roles in Washington as head of Transportation Security Administration, the government agency that more than others traces its lineage to the terrorist hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Based on top secret intelligence he sees daily, Pistole, a 26-year FBI veteran, sets the rules for protecting the nation's 457 airports and America's planes, trains, buses and ferries.
Pistole's story is the story of a changed nation, one that has worked feverishly to track down terrorists, fix intelligence problems and try to keep from trampling on privacy while enhancing security.
It was Pistole who, just weeks on the job, called for airport screeners to start using a new security pat-down — one that involved feeling around travelers' genital areas and breasts. It was an unpopular measure, but one Pistole believes offers the best chance of preventing a suicide bomber.
Just Friday, U.S. counterterrorism officials were investigating intelligence about an al-Qaida threat to New York or Washington, possibly involving a car bomb to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I'm an optimist in life in all ways other than when it comes to terrorism," Pistole said. "And I think every day that goes by, we're a day closer to the next attack."
On Sept. 11, 2001, Pistole was working in the FBI's inspections division, conducting a routine interview with a New York judge. He turned on the television and saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
"Well, this changes everything," he remembers thinking.
Pistole, who grew up in the small town of Anderson, Ind., comes from a family of educators. He practiced law before he joined the FBI in 1983. At the time, the bureau had a storied history of putting bank robbers and mobsters in prison. After 9/11, Pistole was tapped to help transform the bureau into one that prevented terrorism.
"We were building the plane while it was flying," said Raymond Holcomb, a former FBI agent and author of the book "Endless Enemies: Inside FBI Counterterrorism."
"John was there at a most critical watershed moment," Holcomb said.
Around the same time, the new Transportation Security Administration was struggling to get off the ground. It had to hire thousands of screeners, coordinate with airlines and buy screening technology.
"None of us really knew how to set up lines at airports," said Norman Mineta, the transportation secretary at the time, who was charged with creating this new agency from scratch.
Mineta turned to The Walt Disney Co., an organization familiar with snaking lines and anxious guests.
The past 10 years have been a bumpy road for the TSA and travelers.
Travelers grew used to long lines and lists of prohibited items. But there were complaints screening policies, security equipment that didn't work, and more.
In 2004, Pistole shifted from head of FBI counterterrorism to deputy director of the FBI, essentially the chief operating officer of the nation's premier law enforcement agency.
Pistole dealt with terror plots around the country, as well as drug cartels, public corruption and Ponzi schemes.
In 2006, al-Qaida plotted to sneak liquid bombs onto U.S.-bound planes in London. As the FBI worked with British officials, Pistole was unaware of the seismic shift happening at the TSA. In about four hours, the agency changed the entire security operation in U.S. airports, banning liquids in carry-on bags.
Within six weeks, TSA was comfortable enough to allow 3.4 ounce containers, packed in one 1-quart plastic zip-close bag.
Again, TSA reinvented itself.
Pistole managed the FBI during some of its most stressful hours toward the end of his tenure. There was the Christmas Day attempted attack in 2009, when a passenger nearly brought down an airplane over Detroit with a bomb in his pants. The FBI built its case while fending off criticisms that the FBI shouldn't have read the suspect his rights.
Through it all, Pistole was "always calm and collected and professional and even-tempered," said Michael Rolince, a 31-year FBI agent and former head of the Washington office's counterterrorism division. "Right up until the day John Pistole left, you would think that he had a job with as much pressure as a lifeguard."
Pistole said he starts each morning with prayer and meditation and squeezes in a workout before work. The father of two college-age daughters teaches an adult Bible study group with his wife of 32 years. He said he often turns to God when faced with tough decisions.
"He is very calm, but he's also very thoughtful, measured and very determined in what he wants to accomplish," said John Brennan, President Barack Obama's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
In the spring of 2010, Pistole was tapped to run the TSA. He was Obama's third choice to run an agency that had been without a permanent administrator since he took office.
Pistole's first thoughts: "That sounds like a thankless job."
After the previous two nominees withdrew from consideration over concerns about ethics issues, Pistole sailed through confirmation hearings.
One of Pistole's first orders was to develop a new, enhanced airport pat-down that could give screeners a better shot at detecting a well-hidden explosive. In doing so, he waded into the TSA's 9-year-old tug of war between security and civil liberties. In August of last year, Pistole himself was patted down.
"I had a pretty good sense that it would not be wildly popular with most people," he said.
Travelers and privacy advocates were outraged by the intrusive pat-downs, which were used even on children and the elderly. Pistole heard the cries for common sense. He instructed screeners to pat down children only as a last resort. Pistole is also testing a new screening system based on intelligence files that could speed up the process for travelers who volunteer personal information vetted by intelligence officials.
Pistole said he's learned how important it is to have the public on the TSA's side.
Last fall, the U.S. averted disaster when al-Qaida operatives in Yemen concealed explosives in printers and shipped them to the U.S. It was the first significant plot for Pistole as TSA chief. He often cites the plot in his speeches, highlighting the measures terrorists will take and how inexpensive it is to do so (just $4,200, the terrorists boasted afterward). That plot was ultimately foiled because of intelligence provided to the U.S. by Saudi Arabia.
Now, the longtime FBI agent — who considers his arrest of the Genovese crime family boss in New York in 1990 as a defining moment in his career — is the security chief working on a complex system to keep travelers safe without slowing them down.
"Intelligence is our best asset," Pistole said.
And this is why every weekday, dozens of senior transportation security intelligence officials will again file into a windowless room and John Pistole will take his seat at the head of the table.