U.S. changing way air travelers are screened

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By Anne E. Kornblut and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010

The Obama administration is abandoning its policy of using nationality alone to determine which U.S.-bound international air travelers should be subject to additional screening and will instead select passengers based on possible matches to intelligence information, including physical descriptions or a particular travel pattern, senior officials said Thursday.

After the attempted bombing of an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas Day, U.S. officials decided that passengers from or traveling through 14 specified countries would be subjected to secondary searches. Critics have since called the measures discriminatory and overly burdensome, and the administration has faced pressure to refine its approach.

Under the new system, screeners will stop passengers for additional security if they match certain pieces of known intelligence.

The system will be "much more intel-based," a senior administration official said, "as opposed to blunt force."

In the Christmas Day incident, Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to ignite explosives sewn into his underwear as Northwest Airlines Flight 253 prepared to land, but the device failed, and he was subdued by fellow passengers. Abdulmutallab has allegedly said he was trained by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.

Immediately afterward, the administration ordered a significant increase in secondary searches, requiring all passengers from or traveling through Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Liberia, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen to undergo extra security at the airport. Travelers from countries considered state sponsors of terrorism -- Cuba, Syria, Iran and Sudan -- were subjected to the same screening, including pat-downs and additional bag checks.

Airlines had warned that the measures instituted after the Christmas Day incident would need to be eased before the busy summer travel season. And critics objected that the added scrutiny amounted to a pretext for racial profiling that could potentially affect 675 million people, including American Muslims and religious pilgrims.

Administration officials briefed reporters about the revised policy Thursday. But they did so on the condition that reporters not publicize it or seek reaction to it until after midnight, saying they were still working to notify foreign partners and members of Congress.

The underlying airline security policy of checking passenger names against watch lists will continue to operate, and certain passengers will still be banned from flying or required to submit to additional security based on names in intelligence databases. About 24,000 people around the world are currently on those "no-fly" and "selectee" lists.

Administration officials said the new system will "significantly" reduce the number of passengers chosen for mandatory extra screening, eliminating entire swaths of travelers who had been chosen based on their nationalities.

But it will also broaden the universe of potential targets for secondary searches, expanding the focus from the 14 named countries to dubious passengers from anywhere in the world, a move also designed to outsmart terrorist plotters who knew which countries were affected.

The rules will take effect within the month, the senior administration official said, acknowledging that the system instituted in January presented a severe inconvenience to travelers from the listed countries.

The official offered a hypothetical case to illustrate how the new system will work. If U.S. intelligence authorities learned about a terrorism suspect from Asia who had recently traveled to the Middle East, and they knew the suspect's approximate age but not name or passport number, those fragments would be entered into a database and shared with commercial airline screeners abroad.

The screeners would be instructed to look for people with those traits and to pull them aside for extra searches, the official said, acknowledging that that in some cases, screeners will have to rely on their judgment as they consider the listed traits.

While intelligence officials had fragments of information about Abdulmutallab -- including warnings from his father that he was becoming radicalized, and warnings about a Nigerian plot against U.S. interests -- those pieces of information were not connected in time to keep him from flying.

Administration officials have said that, in hindsight, the central failure involved inadequate sharing of information. It is not clear whether the new screening measures would have been sufficient to block him.


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