The Department of Homeland Security has unveiled new aviation security measures for all international commercial flights bound to the United States, a move that could potentially lead to either the lifting or expansion of the laptop ban currently in place for direct flights of foreign airlines from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa.
“Inaction is not an option,” DHS Secretary John Kelly said Wednesday. “Those who choose not to cooperate or are slow to adopt these measures could be subject to other restrictions, including a ban on electronic devices on aircraft or even a suspension of their flights into the United States.”
Kelly said the new security measures for all commercial flights coming into the U.S. — both foreign and U.S. airlines — will be “both seen and unseen” and phased in over time. The department is pushing for enhanced screening of electronic devices, more thorough passenger vetting, and new measures designed to mitigate the potential threat of insider attacks, according to Kelly.
“It is time we raise the global baseline of aviation security,” Kelly told the CNAS 2017 Annual Conference on Wednesday.
According to former TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski, this is a push by DHS to tell those 280 last point of departure airports “to step up their security” by buying new computed tomography (CT) scanning technology and upgrading overall screening at checkpoints and gates.
“What they’re saying is if you buy the new technology, put in a higher level of security, we will consider not imposing the ban on you and your flights,” he said.
However, he noted, the new CT equipment — which “can identify very thin sheet explosives in electronics” — will take months or years to get up and running. This will necessitate other security measures, such as behavior detection, increased explosive screening, and more detection dogs, for instance, to mitigate the electronics threat. “This is going to be manpower intensive and it’s going to slow lines down a lot,” Halinski said.
“If this threat is real, and I do believe they seem to have enough intel, they have to take some extraordinary steps,” Halinski said, noting that TSA does not have authority over foreign airports, but does have regulatory oversight over airlines.
Under this new policy, all airlines flying directly to the U.S. will need to implement the increased screening requirements — or face other restrictions, like passengers being barred from carrying on laptops or other large electronic devices. Since March, that ban has been imposed on travelers on international airlines from 10 overseas airports, mostly in the Middle East.
Kelly said Wednesday’s announcement is “just the starting point.”
“We are taking prudent steps to make aircraft more secure, to reduce insider threats, and to identify suspicious passengers,” he said. In the meantime, according to Kelly, the U.S. will work with its foreign partners to put in place “wider counterterrorism improvements,” such as better information sharing, exchanges of terrorist watchlists, and more advanced security checks of travelers.
DHS is encouraging airlines and airports to adopt more sophisticated checkpoint screening technology, vetting, use more K9 detection dog units, and implement other measures to combat the threat to commercial aviation. Kelly said he has spent months engaging with allies and foreign partners on this issue, and “many have expressed strong support for this effort.”
Given that many airlines with direct flights to the U.S. are national carriers, the bill for these security enhancements will likely be footed by some governments, Halinski said. “I think what they’ll find out is when this goes in place, because I’ve seen this happen before after the underwear bomber and those folks, there’s going to be a diplomatic flurry,” he said, so it will be key to watch for international pushback and how well this is ultimately implemented.
Other countries “could make it painful for us if they wanted to,” based on these new requirements by pushing for reciprocity, for instance, he added. But Halinski noted that before this new policy was officially announced, the U.S. had been making calls to partners around the world to discuss this issue, “which is good protocol and diplomacy.”
The so-called laptop ban was imposed in March for direct flights to the U.S. from 10 airports, and there had been discussions that the prohibition of electronics in passenger cabins could potentially expand to include some European airports and U.S. airlines.
Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff previously told The Cipher Brief the restrictions imposed in March were not surprising given that “terrorists are getting better and better at miniaturizing their explosives.”
“What authorities are trying to do here is look at what the current bomb-making technology is. They have made a judgment that [electronic] devices above a certain size requires putting them in the hold, as opposed to letting people have access to them on the airplane. Below that size, they feel comfortable that the amount of explosives would not be sufficient to do any real damage,” Chertoff said in March.
Rob Richer — the CIA’S former Associate Deputy Director of Operations, responsible for Clandestine Service Operations in the Middle East — noted there was some “mystery” surrounding the specific airports that fell under the ban.
“I’m confused about why some of these airports were picked,” he said in March. “I’m pretty familiar with the security practices at the airports that allow direct flights to the States, and they are pretty darn good. They have to comply with U.S. standards to accept those flights, so they get FAA inspections. There was probably pretty specific information that addresses some entity or organization or person using that particular area. That would be the only reason.”
The 10 airports the ban covers for originating flights are: Istanbul, Turkey; Amman, Jordan; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Cairo, Egypt; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Doha, Qatar; Casablanca, Morocco; and Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“Terrorists want to bring down aircraft to instill fear, to disrupt our economies, and undermine our way of life. And it works, which is why they still see aviation as the crown jewel of targeting in their world,” Kelly said on Wednesday.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.