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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    So this is, once again, a bit of security theater designed to create the illusion we’re doing something meaningful.

    Amen. Were you expecting anything more meaningful from the TSA?

  2. just me says:

    I don’t really have problems with having extra screenings for people from terror prone countries (makes more sense than subjecting every person traveling to them), but agree terrorists will just recruit people who don’t meet the elements of the current profile.

  3. Herb says:

    Security theater is right! I’m trying to be optimistic about this and hoping that these are just temporary measures.

    The bottom line is that we’re going to have to get smarter. Not just from a screening perspective, but in other areas too.

    I don’t see why, in 10-15 years down the line, we can’t design better security measures into airplanes/airports.

    Like, say, seats that face each other.

  4. Franklin says:

    So this is, once again, a bit of security theater designed to create the illusion we’re doing something meaningful.

    Well, as much as I hate the current and proposed security measures, I do actually think this makes the terrorists work a *little* harder. They *do* have to find guys like Richard Reid, and in doing so they may have a larger chance of having their communications intercepted than do a couple of Yemenis talking in their own house.

    That’s the “benefits” side. There’s plenty of costs here, and I would agree they significantly outweigh the benefits. I’m only arguing whether these measures are somewhat meaningful or not meaningful at all.

  5. tomjones says:

    Wouldn’t have stopped 9/11? Weren’t the 9/11 attackers citizens of the affected nations?

    Citizens of 14 nations, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, who are flying to the United States

    You seem to be confusing nationality with the flight’s country of origin.

  6. steve says:

    We can do better, but we cannot be perfect. I deal regularly with the issue of trying to keep people prepared for handling rare problems. Think about it. Your average TSA employee will never see a terrorist. He wont even know anyone who has found one. If you spend 8 years searching people and never finding anything, what do you think will happen?


  7. Richard Farias says:

    Wouldn’t have stopped 9/11? Weren’t the 9/11 attackers citizens of the affected nations?

    The four hijacked planes on 9/11 were domestic flights. You don’t need to show a passport prior to boarding a domestic flight; you can show any government-issued photo identification, usually a driver’s license. Last time I checked, driver’s licenses say absolutely nothing about country of origin, only which state you happen to be from…

  8. Eric Florack says:


    You know I’m the last person to come down in the side of Chuckles The Clown Schumer on any given topic.
    At the same time the list of attacks you correctly provide does nothing to discount his point of where threats exist. You’re only listing attacks that were partially successful. How many attacks were not successful?

    (now of course that begs the question of why, if they weren’t a success why increased security is needed at all.. and that a question the likes of Schumer will never address)