Passenger Manifest Rules Get Their Own Screening

A debate has been raging inside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Intelligence Community (IC) over whether passengers on international flights to the United States should be more closely scrutinized (screened) using all the various government databases on known and suspected terrorists, and whether such scrutiny should be performed well in advance of departures and whether “hits” in non-No-Fly list databases should require that these persons be singled out for closer physical screening.
A variety of IC authorities said that had Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) detecting of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE, the government’s central repository of information on international terrorist identities that’s used to support the various terrorist screening systems or “watch lists” and the IC’s overall counterterrorism mission) been allowed to cause CBP to take a closer look at him – perhaps even consulting Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) – such as his travel history and other details about his current travel and demeanor much like as is performed by Israeli aviation security, it would have caused Abdulmutallab to be subjected to closer physical screening once at the airport security checkpoint.
TSA BDOs and counterterterror intelligence officials told that Abdulmutallab exhibited “a number of personal things” that should have “set off alarms – like, according to reports, he had no coat – even though he was flying to a very cold Detroit – or luggage. "These are all signs that, when looked at in light of his name having been in TIDE, should have set off alarms – they certainly would have at Ben Gurion airport in Israel,” one of the officials told
[See the May 2008  Homeland Security Today report, “Keep Your Shoes On and Tell the Truth”]
In the recent Homeland Security Policy Institute paper, “No Longer on Auto Pilot: Aviation Security and Intelligence Reform,” the authors noted that while Abdulmutallab “was reportedly targeted for secondary screening by Customs and Border Protection in Detroit … by the time this occurred it was too late as he was already in mid-air. This layer of protection should never have been reached in this instance; but making improvements here may be crucial in helping us next time to interdict individuals with no criminal background or known affiliation with any terrorist or extremist organization.”
Last July, a DHS inspector General report, “Role of the No Fly and Selectee Lists in Securing Commercial Aviation,” addressed “whether potential vulnerabilities to commercial aviation exist as a result of the TSA’s use of a subset of the federal consolidated Terrorist Screening Database in conducting commercial air carrier passenger prescreening instead of screening against all records in the database.”
The DHS IG noted that it was because of existing concerns “regarding TSA’s decision to screen against only the No Fly and Selectee lists” to prompt “Congress in the DHS Appropriations Act of 2008 to mandate that we report on any potential vulnerabilities to the nation’s aviation system” by not screening against all databases, and in sufficient time to flag persons of interest for additional scrutiny and physical screening.”
The IG pointed out that “although the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) serves as the central clearinghouse for all terrorist screening information, all information in the TSDB is derived from two sources, which contain supporting information on each individual who is known or reasonably suspected to be connected to terrorism.”
Continuing, the IG stated that “the primary source for all information relating to international terrorist identities in the TSDB is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterterrorism Center’s [NCTC] TIDE.”
Congress required TSA to certify “that no significant security risks are raised by screening airline passenger names only against a subset of the full terrorist watch list.”
Officials in the intelligence departments of TSA, CBP and within the IC’s counterterrorism community say the Abdulmutallab case shows that the existing databases need to be better utilized and correlated and with a capability to “flag” a “suspicious” person on a aircraft passenger list much sooner than is currently done.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) pledged to introduce legislation requiring airlines to transmit passenger lists to CBP at least 24 hours in advance of international flights arriving in the United States.
“It is outrageous that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a known threat and could have been stopped from boarding the plane had CBP had more time to review the passenger list,” said Lowey, adding, “I intend to introduce legislation immediately requiring airlines to give our front-line security personnel more time to intercept and stop known or suspected terrorists.”
This week, Lowey, a senior member of the Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee and Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, sent President Barack Obama a list of nine specific policy recommendations to close gaps in aviation security.
In a March 10, 2009, Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security hearing, Lowey told CBP Acting Commissioner Jayson Ahern she had recently toured JFK Airport and was concerned CBP often received passenger lists from airlines only 30 minutes before flight departed for the US, giving CBP officers very little time to review lists for known or suspected terrorists.  She asked whether airlines should provide passenger lists 24 hours in advance of international flights arriving in the United States, as incoming sea vessels are required to do.
Ahern replied: “Absolutely I do not think so in the air environment.”
“It should be obvious that 30 minutes is not enough time for CBP officers to screen hundreds of passengers,” said Lowey.  “That is why I voiced this concern nearly a year ago.  Now that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt this is a valid concern, I intend to introduce legislation immediately closing this gaping loophole.”
Still, CBP officers do not routinely screen all international passengers bound for the US against the names in TIDE.
An Obama administration official said CBP officers had learned that Abdulmutallab was in TIDE while the flight he was on was en route to the US and had planned to talk to him only after the Northwest flight landed in Detroit.
Still, according to reports, CBP would not have required Abdulmutallab to undergo secondary screening or prohibit him from boarding the flight in Amsterdam because he wasn’t on the No Fly list or the TSDB that requires additional screening of passengers.
"Officials wouldn’t have pulled him out for secondary screening or prevented him from flying in Amsterdam because, as has been widely reported, Abdulmutallab was not on the selectee, No Fly or even the terror watch list, and that is, of course, one of the failures the president has so strongly criticized," an administration official told Congress Daily.
Under US rules, airlines must transmit "passenger name record" data on passengers 72 hours before a flight leaves for the United States. But these names are not routinely checked against the names in TIDE, which counterterror intelligence analysts and officials told is a “big mistake,” as one put it.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) wants the State Department to suspend the visa of any person who is listed in TIDE.
In July 2006, CBP sought to acquire passenger name manifests a full 60 minutes prior to departure, with a mechanism that would allow for individual, real-time transactions up to 15 minutes prior to a flight’s departure for last-minute ticket buyers and other manifest changes.
CBP also wanted access to more data on international passengers en route to the US preflight from all air carriers and to be able to retain that data for a much longer period of time.
Under Obama’s recent intelligence directive in response to the Abdulmutallab case, NCTC must "establish a dedicated capability responsible for enhancing record information on possible terrorists" in TIDE.

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