New York Times – 2012-06-15 22:01:24
Shannon, Ireland (June 15, 2012) — An ocean away from the United States, travelers flying out of the international airport here on the west coast of Ireland are confronting one of the newest lines of defense in the war on terrorism: the US border.
In a section of this airport carved out for the Department of Homeland Security, passengers are screened for explosives and cleared to enter the United States by US Customs and Border Protection officers before boarding. When they land, the passengers walk straight off the plane into the terminal without border checks.
At other foreign airports, including those in Madrid, Panama City and Tokyo, US officers advise the local authorities. US programs in other cities expedite travel for passengers regarded as low risk.
The programs reflect the Obama administration’s ambitious effort to tighten security in the face of repeated attempts by al Qaeda and other terrorists to blow up planes headed to the United States from foreign airports.
The thinking is simple: By placing officers in foreign countries and effectively pushing the US border thousands of miles beyond the country’s shores, Americans have more control over screening and security. And it is far better to sort out who is on a flight before it takes off than after a catastrophe.
“It’s a really big deal — it would be like us saying you can have foreign law enforcement operating in a US facility with all the privileges given to law enforcement, but we are going to do it on your territory and on our rules,” the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, said on a flight back to the United States from the Middle East, where she negotiated with leaders in Israel and Jordan about joint airport security programs. “So you flip it around, and you realize it is a big deal for a country to agree to that.”
Airports in 14 countries are participating in the programs, which have been expanded over the past several years and have required substantial concessions from foreign leaders. In many cases they have agreed to allow US officers to be placed in the heart of their airports and to give them the authority to carry weapons, detain passengers and pull them off flights.
In December, the government of Abu Dhabi signed a letter of intent to build a terminal where US officers will clear passengers to enter the United States, the most ambitious agreement the United States has struck so far with an Arab country.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, endorsed the overseas security efforts.
“A lot of these attempts are coming from the Middle East,” he said, referring to terrorism plots, “and that drives home that we have an immediate problem and that we need to push for these programs there as hard as we can.”
There are still hundreds of airports where US officials have far less say. According to a Government Accountability Office report released in October, the Transportation Security Administration “has identified serious or egregious noncompliance issues at a number of other foreign airports.”
Department officials, however, said in interviews that they were confident in the security at foreign airports because even those that do not have pre-clearance or US advisers are subject to audits by the TSA.
“There was an airport that a US flight carrier wanted to use as a last point of departure two years ago, and we denied it because we couldn’t ensure that planes couldn’t be hit by a shoulder-fired missile near the airport,” Napolitano said.
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