Spotlight: Airports receive new focus in efforts against terrorism

Increased security at federal buildings and enhanced security screenings at airports were among U.S. responses to terrorist attacks in Europe.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson described the measures as “precautionary,” indicating the department had no specific, credible intelligence in regard to possible terrorist attacks in the United States.
Johnson said at the time that the Federal Protective Service would “enhance its presence and security at various U.S. government buildings” in Washington and other cities around the country.
At airports, the Transportation Security Administration began stepping up random searches of passengers and carry-on luggage. Johnson said he’s reviewing whether more steps are necessary, especially since other countries have stepped up their screening of flights departing for the United States.
Johnson subsequently said scrutinizing “unknown” travelers the most at airports was yielding results.
Johnson said he supports Customs and Border Protection’s pre-clearance facilities overseas, which allow customs and immigration screening at the foreign airport.
Airports in Canada, Ireland, the Caribbean and Abu Dhabi screened 16 million travelers last year. Airlines and unions have criticized the Abu Dhabi facility that opened last year because no U.S. airlines fly directly from there.
But Johnson supports the facility, saying it screened 290,000 travelers and prevented 450 from getting on planes, “including several in the terrorist-screening database.”
Johnson said the department wants to expand the program to more airports, and received interest from 25 locations last year.
“It’s actually popular with the traveling public. It’s an opportunity to screen people more before they get on the plane toward the U.S.,” Johnson said. “We want to move forward on that.”
U.S. airport security in recent years has focused its greatest screening efforts on “unknown” travelers. For example, fliers who provide personal information for “trusted traveler” programs often receive expedited screening at U.S. airports, and at international screening and customs checkpoints. The department contends that airport security officers to focus their greatest efforts on the remaining highest-risk fliers.
Despite complaints about the visa-waiver program, Johnson said the answer isn’t to cancel a program that eases legal commerce between friendly countries. The concern is that terrorists with passports from a visa-waiver country, such as one in Europe, could get to the USA easier.
Johnson said extra questions were added in November to the electronic forms used for visa-waiver travelers, but that his staffers are studying other steps.
“Some are concerned about that program because many of these countries are countries that also have a foreign-fighter concern,” Johnson said. “The answer is not to discard the visa-waiver program.”

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