Cautious praise for travel screening change

Travelers from 14 countries that have been home to terrorists will no longer automatically face extra screening before they fly to the U.S.
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010

Lawmakers, civil liberties groups and security experts cautiously praised the Obama administration's decision to abandon using nationality alone as a basis for deciding which U.S.-bound international air travelers to subject to additional screening, but they warned that too little is known to conclude that the revised policy will be effective and not discriminatory.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Friday that the Transportation Security Administration will select passengers for extra screening based on matches with intelligence, including physical descriptions or travel patterns. Senior administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, had described the new policy a day earlier.

The new rules, to take effect this month, replace a policy that singled out U.S.-bound passengers from or traveling through 14 countries for secondary searches, including pat-downs and added baggage checks. That policy was hastily imposed after an attempted Christmas Day bombing of a transatlantic jetliner over Detroit.

"These new measures utilize real-time, threat-based intelligence along with multiple, random layers of security, both seen and unseen, to more effectively mitigate evolving terrorist threats," Napolitano said.

The move was hailed as a significant first step by groups often critical of U.S. security practices, including American Muslim organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, airline and travel industries. Some of these groups had warned that the 14-country rule would lead to racial profiling and delays in the busy summer travel season.

But the same groups noted that Obama aides have provided virtually no public information about who would carry out the new screening procedures, which are classified, or precisely how information about travelers would be used.

"We'd hate to see a system that's overtly discriminates replaced by a system that covertly discriminates," said Michael German, national security policy counsel with the ACLU Washington Legislative Office and a former FBI agent. "That's why increased transparency into what's actually happening is necessary."

Susan Collins (Maine), ranking Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, called the change "a more effective security strategy." But she added: "Intelligence-based targeting systems are only as effective as the intelligence they are based upon."

In addition to passengers from or traveling through countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism -- Cuba, Syria, Iran and Sudan -- the initial policy required extra scrutiny for people from Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.

The failure of U.S. officials to stop Christmas Day bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253, where he allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear, exposed gaps in the government's ability to identify potential threats.

Abdulmutallab was listed in a master U.S. intelligence database of 550,000 suspected terrorists or associates. Officials have said, however, that even if all clues about him had been connected, it still would have been a judgment call whether to place him on much smaller watch lists of those barred from flying or selected for added screening, which include about 25,000 people.

Rather than simply adding names to watch lists, the new screening system will seek to match intelligence about threats against a wealth of passenger data to determine who should be subjecting to extra searches.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers already use such an approach in selecting international travelers for added questioning once they land at U.S. airports. Those agents tap several government databases and use an automated risk assessment system based on factors such as a passenger's age, travel history, country of origin and information gleaned from intelligence sources or past investigations. In fact, CBP officials flagged Abdulmutallab for scrutiny while he was in flight -- too late, it turned out.

It is unclear whether under the new program the TSA will simply use similar procedures to screen U.S.-bound international air travelers before they depart from foreign airports, or whether the agency will go beyond existing domestic practices.

Based on privacy and civil liberties concerns, Congress has closely tracked two initiatives, TSA's Secure Flight screening program and CBP's Automated Targeting System. Congress has limited controversial practices such as engaging in predictive "data mining" -- or sifting through databases to search for potential security threats.

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