New ID Technology's Role in Pinpointing Potential Threats: What Good Is a Federal Government-Issued "No-Fly" List, Critics Rightfully Ask, If It Fails to Keep Those on the List from Boarding Planes?

By Thaler, Sebastian | USA TODAY, July 2010 | Go to article overview

New ID Technology's Role in Pinpointing Potential Threats: What Good Is a Federal Government-Issued "No-Fly" List, Critics Rightfully Ask, If It Fails to Keep Those on the List from Boarding Planes?


Thaler, Sebastian, USA TODAY


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IN THE WAKE of the Sept. 11, 2001. attacks, the U.S. began instituting a wide array of security measures intended to minimize the occurrence of future terrorist acts on American soil. However, a slew of headlines since 9/11--and a careful analysis of measures now in place at the nation's seaports, Federal and state secure facilities, international borders, and airports--reveals that much work remains to be done. Put bluntly, the security level at these locations nationwide is unacceptably lax: Would-be terrorists still are capable, to an uncomfortable degree, of gaining access to U.S. critical infrastructure.

The extent of the problem becomes clearer by spotlighting certain key details of high-profile terrorism cases. First, consider the ease with which the 9/11 hijackers were able to gain access to planes on that fateful morning: The box-cutter knives carried by them were permitted onboard because, at the time, any knife with a blade up to four inches long was allowed on domestic flights. Just as important, some hijackers lacked a valid, U.S. government-issued identification card. These Al Qaeda members were allowed to board their planes anyway.

Next, there is Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," who was permitted to get on an American Airlines flight in Paris on Dec. 22, 2001, wearing plastic explosives in his shoes. He was allowed to obtain a seat despite his having been prevented from flying the previous day due to his unwillingness to answer all of the passenger screeners' questions, and despite the fact that he did not check any luggage.

Almost eight years later, in September 2009, Najibullab Zazi was arrested as part of the U.S. Al Qaeda group accused of planning suicide bombings in the New York City subway system. Although good police work on the part of Scotland Yard and the FBI prevented Zazi from detonating any explosives, he had flown freely to and from Pakistan in 2008 to undergo weapons and explosives training at an Al Qaeda camp.

Two months after Zazi's planned subway attack, Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, stationed at Ft. Hood, a U.S. Army base near Killeen, Tex., went on a shooting rampage, killing 13 people and wounding 30 others. The FBI and his superiors were privy to Hassan's extremist views for years prior to the shooting, and he was known to have corresponded with Anwar al-Awlaki, a lecturer who reportedly has inspired Islamic terrorists. Hassan also had been disciplined for proselytizing about his extreme religious views with patients and colleagues.

A few weeks after Hassan's November 2009 rampage, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate plastic explosives in his underwear while aboard a Northwest Airlines flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Eve. A month prior to this attempt, Abdulmutallab's father had expressed concerns to CIA officers at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, over his son's rapid drift toward religious extremism. Although Abdulmutallab's name was added to one watch list--the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment--it was not added to the U.S. no-fly list, nor was his visa revoked.

Most recently, Faisal Shahzad, accused of planting a car bomb in New York City's Times Square on May 1, 2010, was allowed to board an Emirates fright at Kennedy Airport bound for Dubai before being detained shortly prior to takeoff. He had been placed on the no-fly list earlier in the day, but the airline checked an outdated list when Shahzad made a reservation and apparently were not suspicious when he purchased his ticket with cash. A routine post-boarding check finally identified him as being on the list, leading to his arrest.

Despite the widely varying circumstances involved in these incidents, most or all might never have occurred if certain security measures involving new technology had been in place and worked in concert with officials. Before pursuing this point in greater detail, let us review some existing measures, instituted at secure locations, that have been designed to identify individuals who might pose a security risk. …

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