A new airport screening regime

Airport security personnel will now mine real-time intelligence and tap into databases that contain information about passengers who have previously aroused suspicion.

The Obama administration this week unveiled a new approach to screening international travelers at airports, in a policy change aimed at preventing an attack like the one attempted by the Nigerian “underwear bomber” last Christmas. Going beyond matching passport information against various “watch” lists, security personnel will now mine real-time intelligence and tap into databases that include physical descriptions, ages, and travel histories of passengers who have previously aroused suspicion. Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to board a Detroit-bound airplane even though some U.S. intelligence officials had flagged him as a possible threat.

After that incident, the government began screening all citizens from 14 high-risk nations, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, which gave rise to complaints about “profiling.” Under the new system, citizens from those countries will no longer be automatically pulled aside for extra screening and pat-downs.

The government has come up with “a smart new airline security policy,” said Marc Ambinder in TheAtlantic.com. “Really!” U.S. officials will now feed unclassified intelligence to airlines and foreign governments in real time. So if, say, “the National Security Agency picks up chatter that a young man from Yemen who has traveled recently through France plans to crash an airliner,” that information will be passed along so it can do some good.

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“Let’s hope so,” said the New York Post in an editorial. Still, it’s unfortunate that the administration has backed away from the sensible policy of screening all travelers from the 14 mostly Middle Eastern nations that produce most of the terrorists who want to do us harm. There’s only one explanation, of course: It’s “an effort to avoid criticism for—eek!—profiling.”

The bigger concern, said Spencer Ackerman in The Washington Independent, is with the underlying intelligence upon which the entire system relies. As Congress learned in the aftermath of the underwear bomber fiasco, “there are still basic problems accessing the various government watch lists,” some of which, amazingly, still lack a basic search function. Until those kinds of problems are addressed, the government will always be gambling that it has better luck than prospective terrorists.

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