“For our airways, there is one supreme priority: Security.” These were President Bush’s words when, just two months after September 11, 2001, he signed into law an aviation security bill that created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
One of multiple responses to the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, TSA’s establishment was as much symbolic as practical. In that time of shock and fear, when another attack seemed likely, if not imminent, the nation craved a concrete response. TSA’s mission to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce spoke directly to the fears of a nation afraid to board an airplane for fear of what might face them.
Moving from symbolic acts to concrete impact was a daunting task for the new agency. On January 2, 2002, TSA consisted of only two individuals in one room at the Department of Transportation. One of those public servants was Stephen McHale, who began his service in the federal government in 1981.
Beginning with nothing—McHale and his colleagues had no desks or phones when they began their work—McHale designed much of the organization we are familiar with today. He oversaw the recruitment of many of the executive staff and managed the hiring of many of the directors and their deputies. Along with a team of dedicated public servants, he coordinated the transfer of 1,200 Federal Aviation Administration employees to TSA and helped rebuild the Federal Air Marshal Service, now regarded as the elite of transportation security personnel. In those early months, McHale provided the growing TSA staff with leadership and direction and contributed greatly to the agency’s analysis of airport and airline security and reconfiguration of airport checkpoints.
Over the course of the next year, the agency grew to more than 60,000 employees, the largest mobilization of a new agency since the Second World War. The majority of these recruits were new to the federal government. From two employees to 60,000 in less than one year is no small feat—and McHale’s work has not gone unnoticed. “Many people will tell you that Steve is the backbone of TSA,” said John W. Magaw, former Under Secretary of Transportation for Security, and McHale’s supervisor until July 2002.
But McHale’s work was hardly complete when TSA was officially up and running. He managed TSA’s transition from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security when that department was formed in late 2002. To honor that transition, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta offered TSA a cornerstone inscribed with words that speak to that agency’s critical mission: “Forged on an anvil of cruel necessity and blood shed innocently, the Transportation Security Administration was built urgently in a time of war, to preserve peace. This vital agency was made not of steel and stone, but of innovation, quiet patriotism, steady virtue and the firm resolve of a nation that would not yield to terror.”
The current TSA Administrator, Admiral James Loy, added that: “Steve McHale has been an integral part of TSA’s effort since Day One to restore the public’s confidence in aviation security, and he will continue to play a critical leadership role as we begin to address security in other modes of transportation.”
Air travel stopped on September 11, 2001. But the TSA gave the nation back its wings. Stephen McHale was the linchpin in that effort.