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Napolitano fields aviation security questions posed on Facebook and Twitter

Secretary Janet Napolitano sat next to a DHS employee using an Apple laptop computer on March 9 and fielded questions for more than 22 minutes about aviation security, which were posed to her “live” on Facebook and Twitter.

Napolitano didn’t make much news, but her calm composure and command of her subject matter seemed to advance the Obama administration’s promise of greater transparency in government.

In her brief opening remarks, the Secretary observed that “aviation remains a target of Al Qaeda,” and cited four ways in which DHS was trying to tighten aviation security: (1) deploying additional advanced imaging technology (more commonly known as whole body scanners), (2) adding canine teams at U.S. airports, (3) procuring additional explosive detection equipment, and (4) assigning additional behavior detection officers to look for suspicious travelers.

In answer to queries from around the nation, Napolitano made the following points:

International cooperation. She pointed out that the U.S. Government does not control screening procedures at airports in foreign countries, but emphasized that it is important for all countries “to agree on common standards for airport screening.” She also reminded viewers that the U.S. reserves the right to periodically inspect international airports that serve as the “last point of departure to the United States.”

Scanners vs. privacy. She asserted that the current generation of whole body scanners was “not at all invasive in my view.” When asked why scanners were necessary, if TSA screeners could instead use physical pat-down searches, Napolitano said, “A lot of people think pat-down searches are more invasive than scanners.” Returning to the topic later in her remarks, Napolitano noted that advanced imaging equipment is currently being rolled out at 11 U.S. airports, 450 new scanners will be deployed by the end of the year, and 1,000 additional systems will be acquired in the following fiscal year.

Sensors. A questioner asked whether state-of-the-art sensors mounted onboard an aircraft could supplement the use of scanners located at the security checkpoints inside the airport. Napolitano said that was a very interesting idea, and went on to note that various sensors are currently being used to detect threats inside air cargo containers. With respect to such cargo, she said the department would achieve 100 percent screening of air cargo on U.S. flights “very soon,” and 100 percent of cargo on international carriers “by the end of the year.”

Sniffing dogs. Napolitano pointed out that extra canine teams were being deployed at U.S. airports and “we’ve asked international airports to add more dogs.”

New TSA administrator. Napolitano hailed President Obama’s choice of Major General Robert Harding (USA-Ret.) as the next head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as a “wonderful nominee,” whose company [Harding Security Associates] has worked with TSA in the past and who brings a “combination of management and leadership skills” to the TSA post.

Small airports. Napolitano noted that the vast majority of travelers use the nation’s largest airports, but nonetheless indicated that “we need security in small airports as well.” She predicted such airports will see additional explosive detection devices and more canine teams.

Connecting the dots. The quest for greater intelligence sharing and extra efforts to “connect-the-dots” with intelligence already gathered, led Secretary Napolitano to turn to a favorite subject of hers, the department’s push for fusion centers across the country that can improve info sharing among federal, state, local and tribal intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Adding state, local and tribal agencies into the national mix can bring “800,000 additional pairs of eyes” to the process of gathering and analyzing intelligence, she noted.

Trusted traveler. The Secretary observed that trusted traveler programs, [such as the Clear program that shut down last June], are “fairly high maintenance” parts of airport operations. She said the department would move forward with some of these trusted traveler programs, “but not as fast as some people might like.”

Israel as a model. Napolitano indicated that DHS officials have spoken with their Israeli counterparts about aviation security techniques, but noted that Israel’s one international gateway airport handles 50,000 travelers each day, while U.S. airports handle two million passengers each day. “Some of the things they can do would really clog up U.S. airports,” she observed.


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