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International cooperation a challenge for air security

By Spencer S. Hsu and Karla Adam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010; A03

As shock fades from the failed Christmas Day bombing of a transatlantic jetliner bound for Detroit, the Obama administration will find that the greatest challenge to tightening aviation security worldwide lies in persuading foreign governments and airports to adopt its proposals, current and former U.S. officials said Friday.

In the near term, travelers are unlikely to experience much more disruption, particularly in comparison with the turmoil immediately after the Dec. 25 incident. From London to Lagos, airlines reported that security-related delays had eased and that international passengers were adapting to a new routine of expanded pat-down searches.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, Nigerian bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, pleaded not guilty Friday to trying to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam with explosives hidden in his underwear. Abdulmutallab, wearing a white shirt, said little as his attorneys consented to his detention in a federal prison in Milan, Mich., 50 miles from Detroit.

The criminal trial getting underway at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan parallels, in a sense, the long diplomatic road ahead as security officials lobby allies and airports around the world to adopt common standards for controversial new screening technologies and data-sharing about passengers.

Although the United States has authority over airlines that fly to the United States, in practice that power is limited by the willingness of airports and host governments to carry out changes -- including paying for new screening machines, making space for them at crowded checkpoints, setting operating procedures and, ultimately, enforcing the rules.

Michael Chertoff, who was homeland security secretary from 2005 to last January, said the day-to-day reality will sink in in coming weeks, particularly in Europe, where privacy concerns -- especially over whole-body scanners that can peer beneath people's clothing to detect anomalous objects -- run strongest.

"We have very little control in the United States over the way people apply standards overseas," Chertoff said. "It only works with the cooperation of foreign governments."

Former U.S. officials recalled the years of painstaking talks needed to persuade some European countries to allow collection of criminal conviction records or immigration watch lists. Similarly, the European Parliament rejected last year a proposal to make the use of whole-body scanners mandatory across the continent.

European officials are encouraged that current talks have not focused on any sweeping "new initiative or legislative proposals," said Sophia in 't Veld, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands and a privacy advocate.

"The debate is certainly on about what is the best way of collecting data on passengers, on screening and on connecting the dots," said Frank Schmiedel, a Washington-based spokesman for the European Commission, which held talks in Brussels on Thursday with U.S. officials and European lawmakers. "But I haven't seen any magic recipe so far where people say, 'Wow, that's a solution,' " he added.

Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration from 2005 to last January, said the end U.S. goal is to build a network of airports, starting with Europe, that use the same technology and standards to scan body images, look for liquids and gels, and share information about threats. However, he said, American and European lawmakers must first reach a domestic political consensus about scanning technology.

This week, consumers, civil liberties groups and some private experts stepped up criticism of advanced technology that produces ghostly images of the human body. The machines can detect objects such as explosives, although not if they are concealed inside the body.

Critics say that the machines, whose deployment is being accelerated in the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, are too big, slow and expensive to be deployed widely. Even President Obama's plan -- to deploy by year-end 300 of 450 budgeted scanners, at a cost of up to $170,000 each -- would cover only a fraction of 2,100 domestic airport screening lanes.

Without enough time or resources to run all passengers through machines, security officials will continue to have to rely on intelligence to make the best use of technology.

"Politicians who want a quick fix are going to run out and buy hundreds of machines before they take into consideration privacy and technical concerns," one aviation industry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending government officials.

Bill Johnstone, who analyzed aviation failures for the 9/11 Commission, said he fears a return to "reaction-driven security" in which political considerations trump sustainable and effective systems.

While machines are "potentially helpful" as a last line of defense, they cannot replace good intelligence, effective use of watch lists and human vigilance, W. Ralph Basham, who stepped down last year as head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in a report issued Friday by George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.

At London's Heathrow Airport, travelers voiced mixed feelings about what Jim Windram, 63, a university professor returning home to New London, Pa., called the necessity of burdensome new measures and the lurking suspicion that they won't work. The U.S.-backed changes focus mostly on U.S.-bound travelers from or through 14 countries deemed to pose a higher risk of terrorism, but they also involve random checks of others.

"It's not resolvable," Windram said.

"If extra security stops something, it's a good thing," he said, after describing a three-hour wait while British Airways lined up men and women for separate searches. "But the terrorist mind-set is always going to be there. Terrorists will find a way."

Ania Bednarczyk, 28, a law student flying home to San Francisco from Warsaw, called the proposed changes "theater" and said body scans are "invasive," particularly for children.

"That guy had a bomb sewn into his crotch, right?" she said. "I haven't seen anyone patted down that much it would be caught."

Adam, a special correspondent, reported from London.

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