Transportation Security Administration Chief John Pistole on Thursday said he will be stepping down at the end of this year to take a job in academia, a surprising announcement from the government executive that has headed the agency longer than anyone.

A day earlier, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said at a United States Chamber of Commerce event that he is pleased with the way the senior leadership ranks of his department are filling out with just two positions vacant and the nominees awaiting Senate confirmation.

TSA Administrator John Pistole. Photo: TSA
TSA Administrator John Pistole. Photo: TSA

Pistole joined TSA in June 2010 after serving as deputy director of the FBI. The TSA job had been vacant for more than a year and twice Obama administration nominees backed out of confirmation process for the job.

Pistole is credited with instilling a risk-based approach to security at TSA, which may be most publicly visible with the popular PreCheck program that provides expedited screening benefits to travelers at airport checkpoints in return for going through pre-screening procedures as a result of voluntarily submitting personal background when applying to join the trusted traveler program.

The risk based security concepts implemented by Pistole at TSA are now “propagating” elsewhere within DHS, David Olive, founder and principal with the government relations firm Catalyst Partners, told Defense Daily. Olive, who said he is a “big fan” of Pistole, said the administrator has been able to balance the competing demands of security, and passenger satisfaction and the flow of commerce while at the same time keeping various stakeholders content.

Those sentiments were expressed on Capitol Hill.

“I commend Administrator Pistole for the outstanding job he has done as head of the Transportation Security Administration,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. “Mr. Pistole shared my goal of refining TSA to better serve travelers’ needs while still providing safe mass transit.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on the committee, applauded Pistole for his risk-based approach to security and for allowing Transportation Security Officers to unionize.

Johnson said in a statement that Pistole “has been integral” in moving TSA to a “risk-based, intelligence driven counterterrorism agency.”

As far a successor for Pistole, who said he will remain with TSA through Dec. 31, Olive said that if Republicans gain control of the Senate following mid-term elections next month, the Obama administration may decide on a recess appointment if it believes that any nominee will have difficulty being confirmed. A recess appointment can still be an effective leader of the TSA, he said.

Olive and others said that finding someone qualified and interested in the TSA’s top job may be difficult given the stress that comes with the position and the competing constituencies that have to be satisfied. He and others also believe that someone with national security, defense or law enforcement experience may ultimately be nominated, particularly if that person has already been confirmed for another government job.

Pistole graduated from Anderson University in Indiana and the Indiana Univ. School of Law. TSA said in the coming weeks he will be named to a position in academia beginning in early 2015.