Byline: Lisa Caruso
On Christmas Day 2009, according to authorities, a young Nigerian evaded security at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and nearly blew up a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit. Unlike the 9/11 terrorists, who attacked from within, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab began his mission from outside this country’s borders, where there is only so much the United States can expect even its closest allies to do to help protect the American homeland.
Although its authority abroad is limited, the U.S. can only thwart terrorists who would attack the country with planes by working cooperatively with foreign governments, international airlines, multinational bodies, and airports worldwide, despite their sometimes conflicting agendas.
The early leaders of the Homeland Security Department and its Transportation Security Administration, which were created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, learned this lesson the hard way during their prolonged and at times bitter haggling with the European Union over how much information about transatlantic fliers the E.U. would share with the United States.
“Other countries don’t want their policies written for them and presented to them as a fait accompli by the United States of America,” said James Loy, who served as TSA administrator from 2002 to 2003 and as deputy secretary of DHS from 2003 to 2005. “You’re also operating against basic cultural differences and things that culture A allows and culture B doesn’t,” Loy said of the Europeans’ emphasis on protecting travelers’ privacy rights compared with the Americans’ insistence on putting security needs first.
Michael Jackson, who was deputy secretary of DHS from 2005 to 2007, added, “It takes a lot of patient deliberation when you work with foreign governments. It’s essential that there be good personal and diplomatic relationships to be able to maximize security.” And if anyone should know, it’s Jackson, who led the DHS team that worked around the clock with its counterparts in the United Kingdom, the E.U., and Canada after U.K. investigators in August 2006 disrupted a plot to detonate liquid explosives on at least 10 transatlantic flights to the United States and Canada.
“Within a couple of weeks, we found that global technical and policy consensus you couldn’t have legislated” to craft what eventually became a worldwide standard for liquids in carry-on luggage. Consensus was possible, Jackson said, not only because the threat was recent and real but also because “we already had the relationships in place.” This resulted in part from twice-yearly meetings, begun by Loy, between transportation security officials in the U.S. and U.K. governments.
International consultations continue under DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute. Napolitano recently traveled to Spain and Switzerland to meet with her European partners and with representatives of international airlines to discuss international security standards, while Lute and other senior officials convened with government leaders and international airport executives to review how they screen passengers on U.S.-bound flights.
The trips follow Napolitano’s announcement earlier this month that additional security measures are being taken in the wake of the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing — including encouraging foreign airports to accelerate deployment of body scanners, which the Dutch are now doing at Schiphol with U.S.-bound passengers, and beefing up the presence of federal air marshals on inbound flights from abroad.
Those measures came on top of the new security directive for international flights to the United States that the TSA announced on January 3. The directive requires every person flying into this country who is from or connecting through one of 14 countries of interest to undergo greater security screening; it also mandates increased use of enhanced screening, as well as threat-based and random screening for all travelers flying to the United States.
But the TSA’s authority extends only so far, because its officers do not screen travelers bound for this country from airports overseas. However, in regulating airlines that fly into the United States, the TSA can fine or deny landing rights to any airline that does not meet its security standards. The agency also inspects all foreign airports from which U.S.-bound flights depart and can notify the public of which ones don’t pass muster.
The TSA currently fields some 50 inspectors in more than 300 airports and airline repair stations in more than 100 countries around the world that perform on-site security checks. The agency also maintains a cadre of 21 TSA representatives in 19 different locations who serve as transportation security liaisons to their host governments. And the TSA has six international industry representatives stationed in the United States, Singapore, and Frankfurt who work with the airline industry.
The TSA does not determine who is placed on the list of known or suspected terrorists, nor does it decide who is not allowed to fly or who is required to undergo intensive security screening. But since last year it has been taking over responsibility from the airlines for checking passengers’ names against the so-called no-fly and selectee lists, under what is known as the Secure Flight program. The agency expects to assume watch-list checks for all domestic airlines by the end of March and for all international airlines flying to the United States by the end of the year.
“Other countries don’t want their policies written for them… by the United States.”
— James Loy, former TSA administrator
Customs and Border Protection, another DHS agency, plays a role in international aviation security as well. Airlines headed to the United States are required to send the CBP basic information such as a traveler’s full name, gender, and the country issuing the traveler’s passport, which is all referred to as Advance Passenger Information System data, no later than 30 minutes before departure. The CBP uses this data to assess travelers for the potential terrorist threat they pose and can advise the airline not to allow a suspicious passenger to board the aircraft.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., a senior member of the subcommittee that funds DHS, plans to introduce legislation that would require airlines to transmit passenger information for inbound international flights to the CBP 24 hours in advance of departure and would increase the number of TSA representatives stationed abroad, among other things.
Critics insist that rather than treating everyone — whether flying within or to the United States — as a potential terrorist, the TSA should divide travelers into low-risk groups that would undergo less screening and high-risk groups that would receive more-intense scrutiny.
Andrew Steinberg, a partner at the Jones Day law firm and a former assistant secretary of Transportation for aviation and international affairs, said, “The way we’re going about this is all wrong. We’re spending all this money on high-tech screening of 100 percent of passengers when we do not have timely and accurate information on the .001 percent of passengers who want to do harm. We should make sure we have all of the information we would want to know about a person before boarding a plane to determine the terrorism risk they pose. Then we should do baseline screening for the majority that pose little risk and do thorough physical screening of the higher-risk people” based on the information gathered in advance, Steinberg said.
For their part, major international airlines and airports must perform the delicate balancing act of reassuring the U.S. government and public that they will help keep terrorists out of the United States without angering privacy advocates in their home countries or discouraging people from flying internationally at a time when overseas travel is the one bright spot for the ailing aviation industry.
Although leading U.S. airlines have remained mum, Robert Crandall, former head of AMR Corp. and American Airlines, said, “If you develop a program that is dreadfully intrusive and imposes greater hassles, the fact is more and more people won’t come to the United States. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
In many countries, airports have to foot the bill for security without government assistance, making them wary of crisis-driven calls for layering on expensive new technologies. Indeed, the Airports Council International, which represents the world’s airports, believes that aviation security costs “should be borne largely by the state.”
Kip Hawley, TSA administrator from 2005 to 2009, noted the magnitude of the task but was optimistic that it ultimately can be accomplished. “It’s a tough situation managing a consistent level of security across airports all over the world. We tend to fixate on the checkpoint, but it’s more than that. The job is not to secure individual flights or individual airports, but to secure the entire aviation network.”
The key, Hawley said, is that “security needs to fit inside the business process and not be an ugly bolt-on. I do not think security has to be a pain or that it has to take a lot of time if the TSA and the airports and the airlines all work together.”