19 years after 9/11 attacks, TSA head reflects on changes, vows: ‘We are on watch’

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 — long before joining the agency he now heads — David Pekoske remembered hearing President George W. Bush’s address to the nation.

From his desk in the White House Oval Office, the president said:

 “This is a day when all Americans, from every walk of life, unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.”

“I watched him deliver those remarks not far from here, at Coast Guard headquarters, before driving down the Shirley Highway, very nearby here, several hours later, seeing smoke from the Pentagon come across the road,” Pekoske recounted in a Friday morning commemoration event at TSA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

Less than two months later, on Nov. 19, 2001, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, passed by Congress and signed by the president, established the TSA.

“We were created in a time of urgent and vital need, to rebuild the public’s trust in the security of our nation’s transportation systems,” Pekoske said.

Pekoske said screening technology is a “far cry” from the checkpoints of the TSA’s early years. “And COVID-19 is propelling us forward at an unprecedented speed.”

In addition to new hardware, the TSA has seen improvements in intelligence gathering and credentialing.

“Every day, we’re looking for ways to make screening more effective, modernize how we do business and find new and innovative ways to carry out our mission,” Pekoske said.

While the equipment and security protocols have changed over the years, Pekoske said the agency’s mission remains the same.

“We are on watch. All of us,” he said. “And an attack on our transportation system will not happen on our watch.”

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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