Chertoff Seeks Full-Body Scanners At Airports

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is pushing for full-body scanners to be installed at airports in the wake of the attempted terrorist attack aboard an airliner on Christmas Day. Chertoff is also urging investigators to look into why the alleged terrorist did not have his U.S. visa revoked after negative information about him was passed to U.S. officials.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Since the weekend, air passengers traveling to the U.S. from foreign countries have experienced tighter security measures. Still, those measures fall well short of what Michael Chertoff would like to see. Chertoff was Homeland Security secretary in the Bush administration. He now runs his own security consulting firm and he joins us by phone from Montreal. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Former Secretary, Homeland Security, Bush Administration): Good to be on the show.

SIEGEL: You're calling for the installation of full-body scanners at airport checkpoints. Why aren't there already full-body scanners at airports?

Mr. CHERTOFF: Well, a couple of years ago we began the process of testing them to see, first of all, if they worked and second, if they could be deployed without unduely restricting the flow of traffic. And the good news is that we were able to demonstrate that they were successful. We could use them without slowing up traffic and we could also protect privacy.

The difficulty is the ACLU and other similar organizations began a very aggressive campaign to limit or prevent the use of these machines and it culminated frankly last year in a vote by the House of Representatives to be very sharply restricted of the use of these machines. So, although we have acquired these machines, they are not as widely deployed as they should be.

SIEGEL: In your current role as a consultant, do you have an interest in body scanners?

Mr. CHERTOFF: You know, I, to be - we consult with all kinds of firms including firms that you manufacture body scanners.

SIEGEL: You do have some interest in...

Mr. CHERTOFF: Correct. That's correct.

SIEGEL: ...in more sales of body scanners.

Mr. CHERTOFF: As well as a lot of other security measures. But I would point out that I've talked about this for probably the last three years.

SIEGEL: The alleged terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was not on the government's no-fly list, which I gather is just a few thousand, 4,000 people. Should he have been and should all individuals who have been cited as possible terrorist suspects be put on the no-fly list? Or would that completely slow down air travel all around the world?

Mr. CHERTOFF: Well, what's ironic, Robert, is I spent four years hearing people from the ACLU complaining that there are too many people on the no-fly list and too many people on the selectee list. And now, today I'm starting to hear people say there aren't enough. Let me explain to the listeners how these things are set up. There is a broad database of about a half a million entries that consists of everybody about whom there's any negative information suggesting that might be a terrorist.

SIEGEL: This is the so-called TIDE list - this TIDE database.

Mr. CHERTOFF: This is the TIDE list: Terrorist Information Data Exchange. It seems that what occurred in this case is there was a, obviously, a very significant piece of derogatory information. But they had not reached the point that they felt they could validate it in a way to deny this individual access to airplanes. I think the more interesting question frankly is why given the fact that this person had a visa, someone didn't suspend the visa or lift the visa while they're conducted the investigation.

SIEGEL: Well, is there a regular merging of databases to see if people with visas have any derogatory information about them?

Mr. CHERTOFF: Well, I'm afraid to say that I think that actually there isn't normally a review of visas once they've been issued. When I was in office, we had a couple of instances where we asked the State department to conduct a full-scale review matching up what was on the terrorist databases and in the visa databases. But I don't believe that's been automated. My understanding from the report in here is that when the information was received it was viewed more as something could be used for the next interview when the person's visa came up for renewal and not something to be acted upon immediately.

SIEGEL: Just to clarify here since you were in office in the last administration, do you think that the information about Mr. Abdulmutallab that his father took to the U.S. in Nigeria, would it have necessarily been acted on any differently in the last administration than it was in this administration? Was the issue systemic?

Mr. CHERTOFF: I don't think this is a policy issue. I think it has to do with whether the people who receive the information from the father acted on it quickly and directed that there be some kind of interim review with the visa status on an emergent basis. And I don't think we frankly know the answer to that. We don't know whether this indicates some kind of a change in attitude or whether it just was a human failing on the part of a particular officer.

SIEGEL: How should the U.S. reconcile reasonable, ethical restraints on profiling with some obvious facts that this sort of thing has been done by Muslim men, typically, and also of a certain age. One could focus pretty heavily on Muslim men under 40 and come up with lots of the people who are posing threats.

Mr. CHERTOFF: Actually Robert, I'm going to argue that this case illustrates the danger and the foolishness of profiling because people's conception of what a potential terrorist looks like often doesn't match reality. In this case we had a Nigerian, for example, not a person from the Middle East or from South Asia. If you look at the airline plot of 2006, two of the plotters were a married couple that were going to get on a plane with a young baby. The terrorists understand that the more they vary the kind of operative they use, the more likely they're going to be able to exploit prejudices if we allow those prejudices to guide the way we conduct our investigation.

SIEGEL: Your objection to profiling is not just as an ethical matter, it's a point of efficacy also. You're saying it doesn't work.

Mr. CHERTOFF: I think it's not only problematic from civil rights' standpoint, but frankly, I think it winds up not being terribly effective.

SIEGEL: Michael Chertoff, thanks for talking with us once again.

Mr. CHERTOFF: Good to talk to you.

SIEGEL: Mr. Chertoff was secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009. He is co-founder of the security consulting firm, The Chertoff Group.

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