Loopholes in the global aviation system beyond the control of the Homeland Security Department are stymieing steps to bolster screening, several federal officials told lawmakers.
"Legal and cultural factors sometimes inhibit harmonization efforts" to standardize security measures, said Steve Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues for the Government Accountability Office.
Lord testified Thursday afternoon before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security at a hearing that focused on terrorist threats emanating from aircraft operations overseas. Since December 2009, when a passenger attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound plane by concealing explosives in his underwear, the U.S. government has tried to improve security throughout the global air transportation network.
But deploying more body scanners and raising awareness among international aviation partners did not reveal a November plot to take down cargo planes headed for the United States from Yemen. It was a tip from intelligence officials that alerted President Obama to a credible terrorist threat, according to the White House.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., chairman of the full committee, seemed particularly concerned about the disconnect between U.S. and foreign data systems. "We've talked about machinery," he said. "We need to talk about information that is about passengers. . . . That can be as important as the machinery itself and can reveal things that the machinery never could, such things as intent."
He noted Europe is not keen on the idea of adopting a passenger data system similar to the one the United States uses. Several bilateral agreements that would improve information sharing on known offenders haven't been signed and some European Union officials now are looking to restrict reviews of data from passenger name records, according to DHS officials. PNRs contain information that passengers give to travel agencies and airlines to book flights.
"Having that information 72 hours in advance allows us to check against our watch lists," DHS Assistant Secretary of Policy David Heyman said at the hearing. "The PNR is extremely important. . . . It has helped us to do analysis that allows us to find co-travelers who might be of concern -- we did that in the case of Zazi -- and to identify individuals who may be trying to flee the country as the case was with Shahzad." Najibullah Zazi allegedly planned to ignite explosives in the New York subway system and Faisal Shahzad allegedly tried to bomb Times Square.
The EU does not have the same advanced passenger information for aircraft flying into Europe that the U.S. government has for flights bound for the states from Europe.
"[The European] Parliament has not rejected that agreement. They have said they have questions about it. They want to strengthen the privacy protections in it -- and have consequently said they are going to withhold their voting down until the commission negotiates a new agreement with the United States," Heyman said. "The commission received today their mandate to negotiate with the United States and that will be forthcoming negotiation starting very soon."
On the body scanner front, 13 foreign countries have begun to test or deploy the units, known as Advanced Imaging Technology, or have committed to doing so. But concerns about privacy, cost and effectiveness prevent many other governments from following suit.
Because the machine "presents a full-body image of a person during the screening process, concerns have been expressed that the image is an invasion of privacy," Lord testified. The European Commission reports that several countries, including the Czech Republic, France, Germany and Italy, "by law, limit the exposure of persons to radiation other than for medical purposes, a potential barrier to acquiring some passenger screening technologies," he added.
Other technologies are less invasive but, so far, the Transportation Security Administration isn't satisfied that they would be effective.
For example, automatic target recognition uses software instead of employees to examine body images, but the agency's "concern remains the number of false positives and then the amount of pat down that is required to resolve those false positives," said Vicki Reeder, director of global compliance at the TSA Office of Global Strategies. "We continue to work with other countries to encourage them to procure AITs."
The scale of rollouts in the United States vastly exceeds the amount of machines other countries are considering. "Even though 13 other countries are either testing or deploying it, the numbers of machines they are actually deploying are rather small," Lord said. TSA, which currently operates about 385 machines, plans to prop up 1,800.
Even with those numbers, Lord noted, "It remains unclear whether the AIT would have been able to detect the weapon used in the December 2009 incident based on the preliminary TSA information we have received."