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U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and her European counterparts last week in Spain "reached consensus on a way forward to strengthen the international civil aviation system through enhanced information collection and sharing, cooperation on technological development and modernized aviation security standards," according to a DHS statement. They were the first cabinet-level meetings between the United States and other countries since the Dec. 25, 2009, attempt to detonate a bomb aboard a Northwest Airlines jet flying to Detroit from Amsterdam.
In Geneva last week, Napolitano also met with leaders from the International Air Transport Association, the International Civil Aviation Organization and more than 20 airlines from around the world. IATA described the meeting as "an historic aviation security summit," which ushered in "a new era of industry/government cooperation to improve aviation security around the world."
"Aviation security is increasingly an international responsibility," Napolitano said during a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing last week in Washington before departing for Europe. "We don't control international airports or screening procedures. Indeed, we don't even do the screening ourselves. What we are doing now is embarking on an international effort using this incident as the catalyst for all countries--all of which have passengers who fly to the United States--to lift their overall screening and airport procedures because there is great variation around the world."
When asked by the committee if security procedures in non-U.S. airports are sufficient, Napolitano replied, "It depends on which airport you are talking about. For example, at Schiphol in Amsterdam, the screening there is not dissimilar from the screening in the United States. But airports in other countries have resisted using some of those items [canines, explosive detection technologies, etc.] because of concerns about privacy. But this incident is the catalyst to reopen that dialogue, especially with the countries that have a large throughput of passengers to the United States. Information sharing with other governments in the air environment needs to be tighter than it is, more real time than it is and more complete than it is."
According to DHS, Napolitano during last week's meetings in Europe outlined areas for "international public-private collaboration" to improve global aviation security. They included: "improving information collection and analysis; increasing information sharing and collaboration in passenger vetting; enhancing international security standards; and deploying new screening technology." The last item is a sticking point for some European leaders who argue that full-body scannersinvade personal privacy.
Napolitano also said airports around the world should not adopt "a cookie-cutter approach" to security "because then terrorists can plan and work around them," according to AFP.
IATA submitted its own recommendations, including recognition that "prescriptive, one-size-fits-all regulations with numerical targets will not secure a complex global industry"; assurances that "one country's requirements do not conflict with another country's laws"; actions by DHS to "break down internal silos to create a single [passenger] data collection and sharing program that could serve as a model for implementation by other governments"; and a "next-generation" security checkpoint that combines technology and intelligence, and "focuses on finding bad people, not just bad objects."
According to a statement by IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani, "Governments and industry have the same goals but different expertise. Governments understand the threats and the tools needed to mitigate them. Industry has the operational expertise for effective implementation. Working together is the only way forward."
Bisignani praised U.S. leadership for taking a more active role in building international cooperation. "Secretary Napolitano has brought a fresh new approach to aviation security" and is "taking a completely different approach from her predecessors," according to a transcript of his speech delivered during last week's meeting. "The U.S. cannot keep terrorists outside its borders without the close consultation of governments and airlines--foreign and domestic. The Obama administration has brought a sea change to aviation security by proactively engaging industry."
Both IATA and DHS announced that more meetings would be held in the coming months.
Senate Hearing Addresses Security-Privacy Balance
During last week's U.S. Senate hearing, senators and witnesses (Napolitano, National Intelligence Office director Dennis Blair and national counterterrorism director Michael Leiter) discussed the balance between security and both personal privacy and practicality.
"This is classic tension between security and liberty," said committee chair Joseph Lieberman, Ind-Conn. "We were erring too much on the side of a legalistic vision of privacy or even convenience that ultimately jeopardizes the security of the majority."
On the specific issue of no-fly lists (accused Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was neither on those lists that would have kept him off a U.S.-bound airplane nor the "selectee" lists that would have prompted a secondary screening), Blair explained that for years after 9/11, there had been pressure to minimize the number of names listed. "Analysts were expected to cast a very fishy eye on the inclusion of lots more names," he said. "Shame on us for giving in to that pressure. We have now greatly expanded the no-fly list from what it was on Dec. 24, and have done a lot more of what is prudent--put names on there just in case and take them off" when deemed appropriate. "The pressure had been in the other direction, and I should not have given in to that pressure. We have certainly changed that attitude."
On the issue of airport full-body scanners, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., raised familiar issues related to the technology's effectiveness and safety. "As there is a public outcry for us to do more, I am concerned about the potential to waste a ton of money on something that is not going to be qualified to change the outcomes of this past Dec. 25--that the technology we have today would not have stopped this even if we had full-body scanners in use," he said. "As a medical doctor, I am also highly concerned about the exposure we are going to put people through."
In response, Napolitano said that questions raised by the U.S, Government Accountability Office on the efficacy of airport scanners resulted from "looking at earlier iterations of the technology. The technology has clearly evolved rapidly. From the objective evidence, the scanners that are being deployed now clearly give us a better chance to pick up metals, nonmetals, powders or liquids that someone is trying to get onto a plane."
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