More changes to airline security after Christmas Day incident

The changes focus on stepped-up intelligence sharing. They also attempt to address concerns that arose after new airline security measures were put in place in January.

By , Staff writer

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    Passengers wait to go through a screening area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Jan. 4.
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The Department of Homeland Security announced Friday a revamping of airline security for international flights to the US. The measures are intended to address not only the intelligence failures that preceded the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner, but also the complaints that arose about new security procedures after that incident.

The revamped screening effort will mean enhanced security at international checkpoints, using advanced imaging technology, canine teams, pat-downs, and explosives detection. But perhaps more important, the changes will mean stepped-up intelligence sharing – between international agencies, foreign governments, and US embassies and security agencies.

Passengers planning to board planes to the United States will still have their passport information checked against terrorist watch lists. But now, other passenger information will also be scrutinized: their travel patterns, whether their ticket was paid for in cash, what stops they may be making in their journey, if they are traveling alone, and other behavioral data. A filtering process can zero in on whatever characteristics may be considered of interest at the time.

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“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,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement.

The Obama administration was sharply criticized after the Christmas Day jetliner incident. The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, had not been placed on a “no fly” list and still had a US visa – even though his father had told the US Embassy in Nigeria that his son embraced extremist ideology and was possibly training with groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.

The incident, President Obama said in a speech shortly afterward, “was not the fault of a single individual or organization, but rather a systemic failure across organizations and agencies.” He ordered a review of criteria used to compile the no-fly list and an overhaul of how agencies and embassies prioritize potential threats.

“Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had,” Mr. Obama said.

In January, the administration instituted new security procedures for international flights. Passengers carrying passports from, or traveling from or through a dozen designated countries, were forced to undergo full-body pat-downs and extra baggage checks. Those countries, many of them predominantly Muslim, were widely reported to be: Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

The extra screening involved many passengers who posed no threat, and some of the targeted countries complained about being singled out.

As the administration has continued to review procedures, Secretary Napolitano has traveled to regional security summits in Spain, Mexico, and Japan. Also, she’s worked with the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, to create agreements between foreign airlines and aviation organizations.

Some Muslim groups have raised concerns that airline security procedures encourage racial profiling. But others say that if the new system sticks to profiling people based on behavior rather than on race, it will be a step in the right direction.

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights advocacy group in Washington, calls this kind of approach “good law enforcement.”

“We’re glad the administration is moving in the direction of looking for actual suspicious behavior and not looking for religion or ethnicity.… It seems like they’ve reacted appropriately,” Mr. Hooper said by phone Friday.

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