Outside editorial: Use of intelligence data will improve airline security

Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2010

After the failed attempt to bomb a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day, the Obama administration imposed a temporary policy requiring extra screening of every passenger bound for the United States from 14 countries.

A new policy by the Transportation Security Administration looks like a real improvement. Officials say it should boost security and reduce the number of people tagged for secondary screening.

Currently, airlines receive a list of people on the no-fly list who are barred from air travel, and another list of people tagged for additional screening. Under the new policy, a third list will be generated, made up of people who are potential risks based on specific intelligence information. The airlines won't receive the underlying intelligence data, only the names.

Officials say the new policy should reduce the number of people subjected to extra screening, but the number will still be above what it was before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's botched attempt to blow up the Northwest plane.

Stewart Baker, a former Homeland Security official in the Bush administration, called the change a "big deal." He said it will allow officials to use a wide range of intelligence data about risky travelers rather than rely solely on "static lists."

Abdulmutallab represented a major lapse for airline security. He was allowed to board the plane even though he was on a terror-watch list, bought his ticket with cash and had only a small carry-on bag. What's more, his father alerted U.S. authorities that his son had become radicalized.

No system is fail-safe, nor will the best system be effective if run by officials who aren't alert. But the changes put forward by the TSA add an extra layer, and that may significantly improve security.

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