TSA chief grilled on knife rule at Congressional hearing

By Steve Strunsky The Star-Ledger

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite a backlash from the air travel community and the pleas of Democratic lawmakers during a hearing in Washington today, the chief of the Transportation Security Administration said he will not voluntarily reverse his decision allowing small knives on airliners.

“Somebody’s got to make the decision,” TSA Administrator John Pistole told reporters following a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee’s transportation subcommittee.

During the hearing, Pistole had assured the ranking Democrat on the full Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), that he would oblige the will of Congress to reverse the ban if it were expressed in bipartisan terms. Asked later to clarify his position, Pistole said that, naturally, he would obey the law of the land if Congress passed legislation banning knives that was then signed by President Obama, his boss.

But he also made it clear he would not reverse his decision just because lawmakers had asked him to.

One of the subcommittee members, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) vowed during the hearing to do just that.

Pistole was before the subcommittee to testify on so-called risk-based security initiatives, including his March 5 decision to permit folding knives with blades less than 2.36 inches long and a half-inch wide as carry-on items on airliners. Barring an act of Congress, the measure becomes effective April 25.

For the TSA, risk-based measures seek to target items or people most likely to pose a “catastrophic” threat, that is, destruction of an airliner, particularly in its use as missile, as on 9/11, the event that prompted the creation of the agency in 2002.

Pistole said told lawmakers that small knives will not cause the kind of catastrophic terror strike his agency is responsible for preventing, because of developments since 9/11, including reinforced cockpit doors, placement of federal air marshals on random flights, and a flying public sensitized to the reality of terrorism.

Opponents of the small knife rule point out that the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters, essentially small knives, to hijack and crash four airliners. Box cutters and other locking or fixed blade knives will remain prohibited as carry-ons.

Pistole said even the chances that small knives would be used to harm individuals on board an aircraft, by terrorists or by drunk or mentally disturbed passengers, is virtually nil.

“It is the opinion of security exprts worldwide, and I agree with them, that these kinds of small knives are not going to bring down an aircraft,” Pistole told the subcommittee. “We are unaware of a single incident involving these small knives on board commercial aircraft.”

The rationale didn’t fly with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who pointed out that the perfect record on knife-related incidents since 9/11 won’t necessarily remain perfect if knives are permitted.

“Can that (record) get better?” Swalwell said. “The answer to that question is no. It can only get worse.”

New Jersey’s sole member of the Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ), is not a member of the subcommittee, but he sat in on the hearing, noting that his district includes Newark Liberty International Airport, where one of the 9/11 jets took off before crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. Payne told Pistole the knife rule was “flawed.”

“Why give anyone the opportunity?” Payne said.

Apart from mainly Democratic lawmakers, opposition to the new rule includes unions representing flight attendants, pilots and the TSA’s own air marshals and airport screeners, as well as at least three major airlines, Delta, American, and U.S. Airways. A TSA chapter of the Federal Managers Association has come out in favor of the rule.

Despite bills promised or proposed by Jackson Lee and by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), passage of legislation to reverse the knife rule is by no means certain. Some Republicans have joined the largely Democratic opposition to the rule, or at least have expressed concerns about it, including Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd District), and Staten Island’s Rep. Michael Grim (R-NY).

But Republicans control the House and many in the party support the rule, including the chairman of the full Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas). Other supporters include the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), as well as fellow Republican members Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Indiana).

All three expressed support for Pistole’s risk-based initiatives, including the knife rule and the TSA Pre-Check program, which provides expedited screening to flyers who pass a voluntary background check. They also expressed support for the TSA chief himself.

“Mr. Pistole,” said Hudson, “you’ve got a tough job.”

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