By Nathan L. Walls

  • Contemplation/Washington, DC
  • Cameras Ready II/Washington, DC
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Articles tagged “tsa”

TSA, watch lists and screening

This was written before a Nigerian man became ill on the Dec. 27, 2009 Flight 253, triggering another turnout of police/TSA

I've been seeing a bit of reaction on Twitter and on blogs about the TSA failing to keep Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab off of Northwest Flight 253.

Andrew Sullivan's reaction is typical:

Who was the government official who was warned? Why was this loon allowed on a flight to the US? Here's a simple test for the Obama administration: find the people responsible for this negligence and fire them.

Other commenters on Twitter talk about TSA failing to screen adequately. I'm not sure if they mean physical screening or passenger manifest screening, but let's look at both.

First, TSA is reliant on other airports and countries to screen passengers from physically getting on planes. Abdulmutallab should have had to have been screened twice. Once in Lagos, his initial departure and again in Amsterdam. There are at least two possibilities here. First, he had the explosive underwear on the entire time and both physical screenings failed to find anything. Second, the syringe/detonator-laden tighty-whities were salted on the plane by someone else.

Either seems plausible.

From sheer volume of passengers, it seems probable that someone will make it through security with contraband. It also seems possible that with the enhanced focus on passenger screening that someone might focus on getting contraband onto a plane in a different fashion. Could be someone with flight-line clearance. Could be someone who just jumps a fence and walks onto a plane. Something like that wouldn't have to take place in Amsterdam.

But what about the watch list screening? His dad spoke up and warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. Unlike Cat Stevens, Abdulmutallab was cleared to land in the U.S. Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano indicated there wasn't enough information to put him on the no-fly list:

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” she replied that placing him on the no-fly list “required specific derogatory information that was not available to the law enforcement community.” Questioned again about the body check, she said her department was “ going backward” and reviewing what was and was not done in his case.

When there have been upwards of 1,000,000 people1 — some duplicated — on a watch list, how many resources is it worth devoting to looking at each and every person on it? What are the criteria for identifying people that would be of more interest than others? I don't know. Remember, while passenger awareness of what was going on saved Flight 253, “See Something, Say Something” generates a lot of noise that has to be sorted through. It's very possible for that noise to be hidden in. Still, Marc Ambinder asks a relevant question:

If watch list folks are on flights inbound for the U.S., the TSA is supposed to figure this out and notify the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center. That's the procedure, and it's been used successfully to prevent a number of nefarious chaps from entering the U.S.

So – if secondary screening in Amsterdam and a validated watch list hit can't keep someone from trying to blow up an airplane, what can?

Except the “watch list” and the “no-fly list” are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. There is the big consolidated list that has the big number. Then, there are the no-fly and selectee lists the TSA uses which are much smaller, but still around 16,000 people. Interpreting Napolitano's statement and other data, Abdulmutallab was on the larger list, but not on either the two smaller lists. It seems, from TSA's information, that they would not see a hit from the larger list against a passenger manifest.

  1. The TSA disputes the 1,000,000 people figure. In particular, they state the ACLU is equating database entries with unique people, where instead, the list can have multiple entries, perhaps for different aliases, for the same person.

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