Despite a series of steps backward in the war on terror, President Obama got it right in implementing new ways of screening airline passengers bound for the United States.
Instead of using nationality alone to determine which U.S.-bound international air travelers should receive additional screening, the administration will select passengers based on how they match up with known intelligence on possible threats, including their physical descriptions or travel patterns.
The new rules are a result of Counterterrorism Chief John Brennan’s review of the intelligence breakdowns that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bound for Detroit.
The Nigerian man’s father had warned U.S. officials that his son had fallen prey to radical Islam and had said he would never see his family again. The man allegedly tried to detonate a bomb onboard the plane on Christmas Day.
Previously, the administration subjected passengers to extra screening if they came from one of 14 countries. Now, extra screening will be applied based on the latest intelligence.
For example, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) might have information about a suspect such as the Christmas Day bomber that includes a general description with an approximate age and the fact that he recently traveled to Yemen. Even though the name of the suspect may not be known, screeners would subject passengers matching those criteria to extra screening.
The NCTC determines whether an individual should be placed on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, which lists about 550,000 individuals, addresses, and objects such as cars and weapons. From that list, the FBI develops the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), from which consular, border, and airline watch lists are drawn.
The Transportation Security Administration maintains its own “No-Fly” list of about 4,000 people prohibited from boarding any domestic or U.S.-bound aircraft. Another list names about 14,000 “selectees” who require additional scrutiny but are not banned from flying.
In addition to changing the criteria for placing individuals on the “selectee” list, the NCTC has asked Congress for funds to hire 100 more analysts to focus exclusively on placing individuals on the terrorist watch list and the “No-Fly” list.
The new approach spotlights the importance of intelligence in the war on terror. In an April 2007 debate, NBC’s Brian Williams asked Obama how he would change the U.S. military stance overseas if terrorists hit two American cities simultaneously.
“Well, the first thing we’d have to do is make sure that we've got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans,” Obama said. “And I think that we have to review how we operate in the event of not only a natural disaster, but also a terrorist attack.”
That was the wrong response.
After the planes hit the World Trade Center in 2001, no emergency response plan would have saved the men and women who jumped to their deaths from windows of the twin towers.
The right way to fight the war on terror is not to look for ways to mitigate the effects of an attack after it takes place. Rather, it is to prevent such an attack in the first place.
The new airport screening guidelines provide a good example of how that should be done.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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