Napolitano: U.S. Moves to Improve Preflight Screening

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that, in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day underpants bomb attack, federal agencies are changing the way they handle passenger databases in an effort to enhance preflight screening of passengers on U.S.-bound flights.

Napolitano said that the Feds are now going to provide information based on U.S. border-control and visa databases to security personnel at foreign airports. Foreign screeners can then use that information to target passengers for additional questioning or physical inspection before they board aircraft headed for the United States. The data that the Feds are going to try to make more preflight use of is known as P3B data; until now, the computer data banks that contain this information had routinely been checked by passenger-screening authorities in Washington only after a U.S.-bound flight had already taken off from a foreign airport.

From now on, Napolitano told a press conference (in response to a question from NEWSWEEK's Declassified), U.S. authorities are going to try to make the P3B data available to foreign governments (or even private companies that do preflight screening) so they can use it to inform their decisions on which passengers should be subjected to extra preflight screening. It is unclear precisely how this process will work.

In some foreign airports, like Amsterdam's Schiphol, where the alleged Christmas underpants bomber embarked for the U.S., American Homeland Security officers are already assigned to advise local authorities on passenger screening. Napolitano indicated that P3B data could be fed from screeners in Washington to the Homeland Security officials at Schiphol, who would then be able to pass on at least some of the information to local authorities and/or private security personnel involved in preflight passenger screening. Napolitano did not explain how such information would be transmitted to passenger screeners at the many foreign airports where her department does not have officers stationed.

The Homeland Security chief indicated that the move to make more U.S. government data available for preflight, rather than in-flight, screening of passengers is a direct response to what happened in the case of alleged would-be underpants attacker Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. As Declassified reported, when the passenger list for Delta/Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day was sent for preflight vetting to Homeland Security passenger-list screeners based in suburban Washington, they checked the list only against a formal "terrorist screening database" whose subsets include a list of "selectees" who are supposed to receive extra preflight screening and a "no-fly list" whose subjects are supposed to be denied boarding for any U.S.-bound flight. Abdulmutallab's name was not on any of these databases, and his flight was officially cleared by Homeland Security for takeoff.

After the flight was in the air, Homeland Security screeners in Washington continued to check the passenger list against additional databases in preparation for the flight's landing in Detroit. During that review, they discovered a P3B entry in TECS, a border-control data bank containing records from numerous U.S. government agencies (including State Department visa information and FBI wanted-list information) on Abdulmutallab, which suggested that upon landing at Detroit he should undergo additional scrutiny by immigration inspectors (who work for Homeland Security). Further checks (while the flight was in the air) of a classified intelligence database called TIDE—which Homeland Security's passenger screeners could access only by visiting a secret room where classified information is held—revealed that Abdulmutallab's name had been entered into the computer as a potential terrorism suspect after his father warned the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, that his son had disappeared and fallen in with Islamic "extremists" in Yemen. Abdulmutallab tried to set off his bomb while his flight was still descending into Detroit, thus mooting any notification to airport inspectors to give him extra screening after he landed.

Napolitano said she had just returned from meetings in Spain and Switzerland with European and other foreign security officials, and that they had resolved in the wake of the Christmas attack attempt to step up aviation security by improving information sharing, passenger screening, airport-screening technology, and international aviation-security standards.