Elevated Airport Security 'Necessary,' Expert Says The Obama administration has called for stepped-up security measures for international airline passengers, particularly those from 14 specified countries. Rick Nelson, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells NPR's Michele Norris that the measures are necessary, but they're not a long-term solution -- and it could have the U.S. "overly focused" on certain countries.

Elevated Airport Security 'Necessary,' Expert Says

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122325780/122325771" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The heightened security measures announced this week called for pat-down searches, luggage swabs and stepped-up screening for international fliers entering the U.S. from or through 14 countries, but there are questions about just how much the U.S. can do to enforce those requirements overseas. For more on this, we're joined by Rick Nelson. He's a former supervisor at the National Counterterrorism Center. He's now the director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welcome back.

RICK NELSON: Hi. Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Does the U.S. have the power to endorse this mandate overseas?

NELSON: Well, not necessarily. Ultimately the security is going to be conducted by the host country, by our partners over there. They are the ones who would actually be conducting the inspections. We have officials over there, they will work with those countries to ensure the standards are met. And the airlines themselves, who are very obviously very concerned about security, officials from those airlines will work with other countries and those security systems too, to ensure the security is where it needs to be.

NORRIS: And what if these procedures are not met? What does the U.S. do then? What can the U.S. do then?

NELSON: Well, what can do, ultimately, we can refuse to accept passengers or flights from these countries. That's ultimately what we can do.

NORRIS: You know, when the new standards were released this week, a number of foreign officials said that they were unhappy about this. A number of countries are chafing about these new rules. Is that itself a signal that there might be tepid acceptance of these new regulations?

NELSON: We can again go back to the Richard Reid example. He was a British citizen. And in his case he would not be subjected to these additional searches. So, certainly, again, anything that we're going to do to prevent these attacks as necessary, we have to be careful again to understand that this is not a long term solution.

NORRIS: Even if the countries overseas follow all of these measures, is it enough? Are these effective screening protocols?

NELSON: Well, the pat-downs are somewhat effective. They're really not. Obviously a much more effective screening measures are these backscatter X-rays or these millimeter X-rays are much better at doing what - or finding things that shouldn't be on individuals. I mean, it's that kind of technology that we're really going to have to pursue. And if you go back to the 9/11 Commission Report, it's that kind of screening that the report was asking for us to have and that we still don't have eight years later.

NORRIS: I'm thinking about the pat-down screening. I mean, would that have detected the explosives that Abdulmutallab tried to sneak onto the - or actually did sneak onto the airplane in his underwear?

NELSON: Well, again it's hard - that's hard to prove whether it would or wouldn't have. I would say that, you know, probably it's unlikely it would have especially if it was done, you know, in a foreign country. I think obviously we would have very good chance of detecting that explosive material had he actually gone through a backscatter X-ray.

NORRIS: To some degree, we're talking about protocols and technology...

NELSON: Hmm.

NORRIS: ...but we're also taking about individual employees who carry out these screenings in airports overseas. How can the U.S. ensure that they are properly trained to do this kind of work, and act accordingly if they actually spot trouble?

NELSON: Well, absolutely. I mean, that's a - that's a good question. And it's something that we work very, very closely with these governments. And it's one of the reasons why we have Homeland Security officials overseas, but what becomes a very difficult challenge when you have to put officials throughout all the countries to ensure the security in the airlines. And it's very difficult on some of these larger airports to ensure that the standards are met. It's very difficult in our own country to ensure that the standards are being met, let alone somebody else's country.

NORRIS: Do we have a big enough presence in these airports overseas, the U.S. government?

NELSON: Well, you know, it depends on how you want to look at that. Again, some of our presence over there is limited. We do not want this to come across as well as that the U.S. is, you know, necessarily running the security standards of another country. We want the country to be a productive partner in our security. And we ultimately want these security checks to be done by the host nation partners. We just have to ensure that there (unintelligible) that they are properly trained. And I know that from what I understand, DHS is taking steps to ensure that training is enhanced.

NORRIS: Rick Nelson, thank you very much for being with us again.

NELSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: Rick Nelson is a former supervisor at the National Counterterrorism Center. He is also a former Navy commander and he now is the director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.