U.S. institutes new, targeted security protocols for travelers to U.S.

Published 6 April 2010

The United States is replacing broad screening of all in-coming travelers with a more targeted approach; the intelligence-based security system is devised to raise flags about travelers whose names do not appear on no-fly watch lists, but whose travel patterns or personal traits create suspicions

DHS last week announced new security protocols for people flying to the United States, establishing a system that uses intelligence information and assessment of threats to identify passengers who could have links to terrorism. This new approach will replace a broader layer of extra scrutiny that had been imposed recently on all passengers from twelve Muslim countries, plus Nigeria and Cuba.

<>The New York Times’s Jeff Zeleny writes that the change, announced Friday, is the result of a review of security at international airports ordered by President Obama after the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a jetliner bound for Detroit. The system, which will be put in place this month, applies only to travelers flying into the United States.


“It’s much more tailored to what intelligence is telling us and what the threat is telling us, as opposed to stopping all individuals from a particular nationality or all individuals using a particular passport,” the administration official told a small group of reporters at a White House briefing last Thursday.

The intelligence-based security system is devised to raise flags about travelers whose names do not appear on no-fly watch lists, but whose travel patterns or personal traits create suspicions. The system is intended to pick up fragments of information — family name, nationality, age, or even partial passport number — and match them against intelligence reports to sound alarm bells before a passenger boards a plane.

Officials said that the new security protocols will be built around present-day threat situations, where fragments of intelligence from various threat streams are considered. So, for example, if terrorist groups are recruiting college-age men who have spent time in Asia and have been to the Middle East, that type of travel pattern would raise a flag to officials at international airports.

“It is much more surgically targeting those individuals we are concerned about and have intelligence for,” an administration official said. The official added: “This is not a system that can be called profiling in the traditional sense. It is intelligence-based.”

If this system had been in place on 25 December, when a 23-year-old Nigerian man wearing explosives-lined underwear boarded a Northwest plane, the administration official said, “we would have had one more chance to stop him.”

Zeleny writes that the system announced Friday replaces the mandatory screening — including full-body pat downs — that was hastily set up in January. Citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria have also been subjected to extra checks of their carry-on baggage before boarding planes for the United States.

Currently, the only information typically checked before a passenger boards an airplane is the name, date of birth and nationality — information found in a passport, which is compared against the terror watch lists. If a match is made between a passenger and the watch list, the passenger can be denied the right to board, or subjected to intense screening.

DHS separately already collects much more information on the travel patterns of passengers headed to the United States, including other stops made on the way to an American airport, how the passenger paid for the ticket as well as other details contained in the reservation, like what hotel a passenger might be staying in, or if he or she is traveling alone. This information is also sent to the United States before the flight takes off, often 48 hours in advance.

Zeleny notes that typically, this information, known as Passenger Name Record, is consulted only by Customs and Border Protection agency officials, once the plane is in the air, as they weigh whether to allow the person to clear customs.

American security officials have sparred with their counterparts in Europe to protect their right to collect this data. The information that intelligence agencies will use could include the Passenger Name Record, officials said, as well as information collected from a visa application or previous visits to the United States.

The senior administration official who spoke to reporters last Thursday dismissed suggestions that the intelligence-based system of extra security could be considered profiling. “We’re talking about different features, characteristics, attributes of individuals who reportedly are trying to carry out terrorist attacks,” the official said. “We’re trying to match those intelligence indicators to the people who are trying to come to the United States.”