Criteria expanded for foreign travelers to get more scrutiny
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
U.S. intelligence and Department of Homeland Security officials said they have temporarily broadened the criteria used to identify people from certain countries for further scrutiny and decide whether they should be added to lists of those who can be barred from entering the United States.
The move is a further response to the attempted bombing of a U.S. airplane on Christmas Day. Officials announced over the weekend that passengers traveling to the United States from certain nations will be targeted at airports for additional screening, including pat-downs.
Under the new guidelines, if foreigners' names are on a catchall terrorism-related list and they fit certain age and nationality criteria, their names could be added to the government's master watch list, which would prompt further scrutiny.
"Even those with thin info, but who come from a certain region or are affiliated with certain people . . . are getting additional scrutiny," a senior intelligence official said.
Hundreds of people have already been added to the master watch list for possible travel or visa restrictions. In many of those cases, the intelligence community has no concrete evidence of a terrorist threat, a second senior intelligence official said.
The change, the official said, resulted from a consensus that the existing system for identifying security threats did not operate as it should have before Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. Officials said President Obama's top advisers plan to detail how that failure occurred when they meet with him Tuesday at the White House.
Based on an initial review, however, officials say they had only a sliver of "derogatory" information about Abdulmutallab before Christmas Day -- one sentence in a State Department report from Nigeria, based on an expression of concern by his father. Abdulmutallab's name was also included in a general database of 550,000 people with sometimes vague connections to terrorism.
Since the incident aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, intelligence agencies have grown concerned that there are other people who pose a significant security threat to the United States, even if officials have only "the same level of derogatory" information they had on Abdulmutallab, one of the senior officials said. As a result, he added, there was a need to move "people that would normally be below the bar" into the master watch list, a slightly more selective database that makes them subject to special scrutiny and exclusions.
The official acknowledged that any lasting change to existing policy will almost certainly provoke concern from airlines and civil liberties advocates, but he said that "in a period of somewhat heightened threat," the administration felt obligated to act. Among those affected by the broadened criteria at the outset are people who are relatively young and who are from countries including Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia, two government officials said.
Deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton confirmed Monday that thousands of people whose names appeared in a long-standing terrorism-related database have been "scrubbed" since Christmas, and he said "dozens" were moved to different lists of people subject to investigation or exclusion. Additional measures will probably be announced Tuesday, Burton said.
The administration's quick revision of the processing of terrorism-related intelligence -- the first such major change during Obama's tenure -- appears to reflect a recognition that the threshold for flagging potential dangers was set too low. The decision contrasts with early statements by senior officials that Abdulmutallab was overlooked because of inadequate information-sharing or weak intelligence analysis.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, told Obama in a letter last week that she thought the standards set for excluding or studying potentially dangerous people were "too restrictive and should be changed." Those standards, set by the Bush administration in 2008, limited "the circumstances under which the government adds an individual to the watch list," Feinstein said.
On Monday, she said: "I understand that changes in the policy are being made, and I applaud this action."
Under the existing policy, people were barred from obtaining visas or flying on U.S. airlines only if intelligence officials presented "articulable" facts that, in combination with reasonable inferences, warranted a conclusion that they were suspected to be involved in terrorist activities. "Hunches are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion," Timothy J. Healy, director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, said in congressional testimony on Dec. 9.
The rules were calibrated at the time to ensure that people were not wrongfully excluded, even if they came from countries where terrorist groups were present. Terrorist Screening Center spokesman Chad Kolton said Monday that, so far, the "standard has not changed," but "that doesn't mean it might not change after the review" ordered by Obama.
But other officials said Abdulmutallab's alleged attempt to detonate a bomb sewn into his underwear has already caused the administration's interpretation and application of that standard to shift.
Meanwhile, civil rights groups have criticized the Transportation Security Administration's decision to continue stepped-up airport screening for people traveling to and from 14 countries designated at higher risk of terrorism, as well as for passengers holding passports from those countries.
"The danger with nationality-based profiling is that it sweeps up vast numbers of innocent people, may alienate those we need to have on our side if we are to reduce al-Qaeda recruitment, and takes our eyes off folks, like Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, who are citizens of other countries that don't fit the profile," said Georgetown University law professor David Cole.
Reid is the British national sentenced for trying to blow up a bomb hidden in his shoe aboard a December 2001 flight from Paris to Miami. Moussaoui, a French national, is the only person convicted in a U.S. court of conspiring in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Under these new guidelines, almost every American Muslim who travels to see family or friends or goes on pilgrimage to Mecca will automatically be singled out for special security checks -- that's profiling," said Nihad Awad, national executive director for the Council on Islamic-American Relations.
In a statement, TSA said a majority of all other U.S.-bound international travelers -- not just from the 14 countries -- will also face random and threat-based enhanced screening, so it is not profiling. "TSA does not profile. As is always the case, TSA security measures are based on threat, not ethnic or religious background," spokesman Kristin Lee said.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.