United States: Country-based scrutiny for air travelers eliminated

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After consultations with governments and airline representatives, as well as U.S. intelligence and law enforcement personnel, the Obama administration has announced new security measures governing air travel to the United States that will screen all passengers based on real-time intelligence, thereby eliminating emergency measures that had focused on citizens from certain countries.

In an April 2 statement, the Department of Homeland Security said the new measures are designed to be more flexible and efficient, and are tailored to “reflect the most current information available to the U.S. government” as a means of ensuring the safety of travelers.

“The enhanced security measures that are going into effect are tailored to intelligence about potential threats and are focused on all passengers from all countries,” the statement said. The change eliminates special scrutiny for citizens of 14 countries that was implemented after the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner on December 25, 2009.

“Passengers traveling to the United States from international destinations may notice enhanced security and random screening measures throughout the passenger check-in and boarding process, including the use of explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams or pat downs, among other security measures,” the statement said.

Since the attempted bombing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has participated in regional aviation security meetings around the world to forge international agreements on “enhanced information collection and sharing, cooperation on technological development and modernized aviation security standards.” The statement said Napolitano has led a global initiative to strengthen airline security in conjunction with the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization.

The State Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs, P.J. Crowley, told reporters April 2 that the new system also applies to American citizens, and includes strengthened watch-lists and more flexible security protocols to reflect the most current threat information.

“These changes came about through a rigorous inter-agency review process that included a number of government agencies including the Department of State, with input from partners in government and industry around the world, [the] intelligence community and law enforcement,” Crowley said.

“Many of our partners around the globe have also increased their own security measures, and the overall intent of this effort is to enforce and ensure the safety and security of everyone traveling by air anywhere in the world,” he said.

Crowley said the “particular emphasis given to 14 countries” after December 25, 2009, was neither sustainable nor efficient. “Since that time, we’ve been engaged in intensive dialogue with those countries,” he said.

“This new procedure … is much more effective, much more efficient, much more concentrated on the threat as we see it, and will apply to all passengers coming to the United States,” he said.

A senior State Department official who asked not to be identified said the list of 14 countries had been “an understandable step” following the December 2009 attack and had been effective, but “there was a cost” in terms of the U.S. image.

“We have taken those concerns on board,” the official said. At the same time, air travel remains a prime target for terrorists and “we know someone’s going to try and attack it again.”

“We’re trying to put in place security that will protect everyone — American citizens as well as the citizens of the world — and we have found what we think is a better way to do that,” the official said.

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