U.S. Tightens Airport Screening for Foreigners
The Obama administration has announced that citizens traveling to the United States from 14 countries will undergo more intensive airport security screening. Eric Lipton for NYT:
Citizens of 14 nations, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, who are flying to the United States will be subjected indefinitely to the intense screening at airports worldwide that was imposed after the Christmas Day bombing plot, Obama administration officials announced Sunday. But American citizens, and most others who are not flying through those 14 nations on their way to the United States, will no longer automatically face the full range of intensified security that was imposed after the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight, officials said.
The change represents an easing of the immediate response to the attempted bombing of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that had been in place the past week. But the restrictions remain tougher than the rules that were in effect before the Dec. 25 incident. And the action on Sunday further establishes a global security system that treats people differently based on what country they are from, evoking protests from civil rights groups.
Citizens of Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria, countries that are considered “state sponsors of terrorism,” as well as those of “countries of interest” — including Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen — will face the special scrutiny, officials said. Passengers holding passports from those nations, or taking flights that originated or passed through any of them, will be required to undergo full-body pat downs and will face extra scrutiny of their carry-on bags before they can board planes to the United States.
Politico‘s Mike Allen is more explicit:
All travelers flying into the U.S. from foreign countries will receive tightened random screening, and 100 percent of passengers from 14 terrorism-prone countries will be patted down and have their carry-ons searched, the Obama administration was notifying airlines on Sunday.
Matthew Weaver, reporting for Guardian, adds:
From today US airports have also been instructed to increase “threat-based” screening of passengers who may be acting in a suspicious manner. The screening will include full body pat-downs, bag searches, full body scanning and scans by explosive detectors.
Naturally, this is generating angry reaction from civil rights groups:
The changes will mean that any citizen of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia will for the first time be patted down automatically before boarding any flight to the United States. Even if that person has lived in a country like Britain for decades, he now will be subject to these extra security checks.
Nawar Shora, the legal director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says the rule wrongly implies that all citizens of certain nations are suspect.
“I understand there needs to be additional security in light of what was attempted on Christmas Day,” Mr. Shora said, adding that he intended to file a formal protest on Monday. “But this is extreme and very dangerous. All of a sudden people are labeled as being related to terrorism just because of the nation they are from.”
But New York Senator Chuck Schumer thinks this and more is necessary.
“You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to realize that flights that originate in foreign countries pose a greater danger,” he said.
But is that really the case? We’ve had seven attempts to blow up domestic airliners: The four planes on 9/11, the shoe bomber, and the underwear bomber. The first four were domestic flights. The second departed from Paris, France — a country not on the enhanced screening list — and the attempted terrorist held a British passport. Only the underwear bomber came from one of the countries on the list; but the list was a reaction to his attempt, so that’s not a big surprise.
Moreover, as Lipton notes,
In the United States, an order for a “second screening” has already been in effect for a dozen countries. But the requirement often does not have much of an impact because most passengers traveling domestically in the United States use driver’s licenses — not passports — when passing through checkpoints, so officials do not know their nationality and there is less of a chance that they would receive extra attention.
These measures would have done nothing to avert 9/11 or Richard Reid. It’s doubtful that they’d have found the bomb hidden in Abdulmutallab’s underdrawers with a pat down but it’s not inconceivable that they would. But, of course, knowing which 14 countries are being screened, al Qaeda will simply fly future would-be plane bombers out of a different country. Or do their acts on a domestic airliner. Or, perhaps, they’ll simply find other crowded targets that don’t employ security screening.
So this is, once again, a bit of security theater designed to create the illusion we’re doing something meaningful.