New airport security plans: less frisking, more 'pre-screening'

One of the Homeland Security's key priorities in the months to come will include expediting 'low-risk' travelers through security lines. One way to do this is 'pre-screening.'

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    Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano delivers a speech during a press conference with French interior minister Claude Gueant and US Attorney General Eric Holder, unseen, in Paris in December.
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The Obama administration is clearly taking complaints about overly-enthusiastic frisking among airport security screeners to heart.

One of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) key priorities in the months to come will include expediting frequent fliers and other “low-risk” travelers through security lines. 

These fortunates, through the growing use of “pre-clearance” programs, will increasingly get to leave their shoes, jackets, and belts on – and their laptops in cases. 

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“Not every traveler or piece of cargo poses the same level of risk to our security,” Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, said Friday at her second annual “State of America’s Homeland Security” address at the National Press Club.

“Think of it this way: If we have to look for a needle in a haystack, it makes sense to use all of the information we have about the pieces of hay to make the haystack smaller,” Ms. Napolitano said. 

This in turn frees up agents to pursue other DHS priorities, “as we move away from the one-size-fits-all model of passenger screening to one that is risk-based,” Napolitano noted.

These other priorities include the growing threat of cyber attacks on US financial institutions, the dangers posed by homegrown extremists, and the threat of improvised explosive materials – like the ones used in Afghanistan and Iraq to create roadside bombs – being misused within the United States.

US officials are getting better at focusing their efforts, Napolitano argued Monday. “Our experience over the past several years has made us smarter about the terrorist threats we face and how we best deal with them,” Napolitano said. “We have learned that we can apply different protocols in different cases.”

Doing just that among airport travelers, for example, makes good business sense. “Simply put, our homeland security and our economic security go hand-in-hand,” she added. “We must recognize that security and efficiency are not mutually exclusive.”

Napolitano argued Monday that pre-check screenings do not involve “profiling” passengers, nor do security measures in which some passengers may receive more robust screening. “For example, we may have information that certain travel routes are problematic,” Napolitano said. 

Likewise, it may involve not intensely screening all passengers from a certain country, but “certain males” that may have traveled to a series of “certain countries” and are, say, between the ages of 20 and 50.

Along with people-screening, the department is also working with more than 80 other countries to prevent certain chemicals into the US through “theft or diversion of precursor chemicals that can be used to make improvised explosive devices, or IEDs." 

To date, DHS has sized more than 62 metric tons of materials, including certain kinds of agricultural fertilizers that can be used in explosives. 

Napolitano acknowledged that when it comes to American-made semiautomatic weapons that are increasingly being used by Mexican drug cartels, “serious mistakes were made” and DHS officials are working to make sure that “those kinds of mistakes are never again repeated.” 

Likewise, she says, though illegal immigration attempts – as measured by border patrol apprehensions – have decreased by 53 percent in the past three years, some immigration laws are “sorely outdated and in need of revision.” 

This includes the inability of businesses to get visas for workers, and farms that do not have enough workers to help at harvest time when “acres of cropland lie fallow,” Napolitano said, adding that “communities and family members are being torn apart” by laws that force children of illegal immigrants to return to countries where they may not speak the language, she adds.

In addition to homegrown extremists, the threat of attack from Al Qaeda-affiliated groups remains a concern, Napolitano said. “Terrorism didn’t begin with bin Laden, and it’s not over with his death.” 

Likewise, countering cyber attacks “is an increasingly busy area for all of us,” Napolitano said. Last year, DHS’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team responded to more than 100,000 incident reports, including threats to the “financial services industry, the electric power industry, and the telecommunications industry, to name a few.” 

In the case of a grave emergency such as natural disaster, Napolitano says she has a “ready bag” waiting at home – and that everyone else should, too. 

“I have the king of ready bags. I have clothes, first aid equipment, extra batteries, extra chargers, a couple good books, and the phone number and e-mail address of everybody I’m going to have to be in touch with if I ever have to use that thing.” 

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