ASPEN, Colorado - The inconveniences and hassles associated with air travel these days - removing shoes and liquids at airport security checkpoints, for example - are here to stay, said John Pistole, chief of the Transportation Security Administration, on Friday.
Pistole appeared at the Aspen Security Forum, which wrapped up Saturday in a one-on-one interview with ABC "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran. He spent more than an hour explaining the TSA's missions and vulnerabilities before a packed audience at the Aspen Meadows' Doerr-Hosier Center.
"Clearly, we've had success in not having a repeat of 9/11," Pistole said. "We can't go back to the pre-9/11 days."
That is, unless travelers are enrolled in TSA's PreCheck program. For $100 and a background check, flyers can avoid body scans and dropping their shoes, belt, jacket, laptop, toiletries and other potentially suspicious items at the TSA checkpoints.
Still in its infancy, the program, which announced that its 2 millionth passenger went through PreCheck on Thursday, is in place at 16 U.S. airports, "and we expect to expand to 35 airports," Pistole said.
A 27-year veteran of the FBI who took the helm of the agency in July 2010, Pistole admitted, at the prodding of Moran, that the TSA has had its vulnerabilities.
Moran remarked that the TSA has appeared to be a reactive agency - it implemented a shoe-removal policy for all passengers after the botched airline bombing attempt in December 2001 by Richard Reid, also known as the "Shoe Bomber"; liquid carry-on restrictions were enforced in the wake of a foiled liquid-explosive bomb plot in August 2006 in the U.K.
"It seems we've always been one step behind," Moran said.
The after-the-fact policies are the product of an agency that's just a decade old, Pistole said.
"We have progressed with the advent of technology," he said.
Part of that progression has included adjusting its explosive-detection devices, which earlier this year resulted in the interception of an upgraded type of underwear bomb by a double-agent in Yemen, where an al-Qaida affiliate had planned to destroy an airline bound for the U.S.
The TSA's emphasis obviously is on air travel, as evidenced by 97 percent of its resources being dedicated to aviation, Pistole said. But ground travel on subways, buses and trains is a concern, and that's where the TSA is "most vulnerable," he said.
"More people have been killed in rail attacks than aviation over the last 10 years," he said, adding that "but because 9/11 involved aviation in the U.S., that's our (priority)."
The notion that the TSA profiles air travelers based on their ethnicity or home countries is not true, Pistole said.
"Terrorism has no face," he said.
The TSA has a labor force of 60,000, 47,000 of whom are security officers and 24,000 who work part time. Trimming the staff at a time when the federal government looks at ways to cut costs is not on the table, Pistole said.
There are "no discussions about reducing the work force," he said.