Asa Hutchinson Speaks out on Transportation Security

On Nov. 10-11, 2005, the Airport, Port and Terminal Security Conference was held in London to address issues of transportation security. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson spoke to the conference and media on the second day of the conference. Excerpts from Hutchinson's interview appear below, courtesy of APTS.

Q: In making passenger name checks before departure, does that mean that you are expecting in the future that we will have doors closed on the aircraft one hour ahead of their scheduled departure time?

Hutchinson: That is the challenge. If we had to have information whether it were 60 or 45 minutes, that means you have got to close-off the passengers that come at the last second. There is a behavioral adjustment that has to be made, so that is what we are trying to balance and work with industry. That is one of the topics we discussed with Niki Tompkinson (Director of Transport Security, Department for Transport) and Heathrow Airport and airline officials. They were very expressive about their concerns on this. We have not proposed a formal regulation, we recognize the need that you have to have the information in advance, in sufficient advance to check the names and to reconcile any conflict of names. So, 60 minutes is the time frame that has been put out there for discussion.

Q: On plans to introduce "smart" cargo containers

Hutchinson: We have an industry group called COAC, Commercial Operations Advisory Committee. We asked them to examine what steps should be taken. They have recommended a regulation mandate for a more secure lock and a report is under review. We support a move in that direction and it is a matter of when we can accomplish that.

Q: Will the U.S. government assist with the cost?

Hutchinson: That (cost) would be a responsibility of industry. That is why we have to be careful with the requirements we put down and work with industry to develop the right requirements but under our system we have an expectation that industry will protect the supply chain that will be part of that initiative.

Q: On the US-VISIT program -- These measures put a lot of emphasis on biometric technology. There is a criticism that if this is introduced across Europe it is going to be different technology, some of it flawed. Also, some of the check lists used are inaccurate and the situation you had with someone like Cat Stevens is going to be more pronounced as it is brought in. What is your response?

Hutchinson: Well firstly, that points certainly at the need for international standards on biometrics that would move in the same direction so that we can have the same technical requirements. What has been proven thus far is there is a high degree of accuracy in the biometric checks. We measure very carefully what the positives are and I think it is less than one tenth of one percent, so we are very pleased with the accuracy of our biometric checks and we continue to monitor that.

In reference to Cat Stevens, it is very, very important we have accurate information on our terrorist watch list and our no fly list and that you have a remedy. I believe that Government is not perfect and that is our system that we have checks and balances, so as we develop the coordination of a watch list we have to ensure there is a redress capability for a citizen who says: "I am mistakenly put on a watch list." So right now, any citizen can call TSA, part of Homeland Security, and submit information to try and have their name cleared if they believe they are wrongly on there, or that they have a name that is confusingly similar and they just want to get their name cleared, so they don't get hassle in the airport. We have that mechanism set up and want to make sure that it is very strong so anyone can avail themselves of it.

Q: Much of the defense you are putting in against terrorists assumes these people will already be on watch lists whereas many recruits to al Qaeda are clean, in the sense they have no criminal record. If that is the main thrust, how do you defend against them?

Hutchinson: Well, your premise is correct, that we have to first guard against those who have an affiliation with terrorists and a connection, and so we have watch lists and systems that can make that connection. But as you said, there are going to be those that have no record and cannot be detected in that capacity so that is why you have to have other layers of security. Just because we confirm someone's identity we don't let them bypass the screen checkpoint before they get on the plane, they still go through the baggage and passenger screening, so we have those systems in place so it is critical for the reasons you stated to have layers of protection built in and not rely upon one technique to secure our country.

Q: On screening staff employed at airport terminals

Hutchinson: We do hope that technology will help us to keep at a reasonable level the human resource investment that has to be made. US Congress has our screening workforce capped at 45,000 (people) at present and technology will help, for example, right now we have our baggage screening equipment in the airport lobbies and we want to develop systems behind the counters, in the belly of the airport. We've done that in a number of airports and it improves the efficiency and reduces the manpower that is required. It reduces work related injuries and so technology is a very helpful solution, but it is still a manpower intensive environment but technology will help us.

Q: On the introduction of private screening companies

Hutchinson: We have tested this in five airports and the findings are [that] they provide the same security benefit as public sector screeners. I think an important part of the equation is to have a TSA overseer to make sure the private screeners meet the requirements of security. By 19 November 2004, airports will have an opportunity to request moving to a private screening company, so it is built into our law that an airport can make that request. I suspect there will be a few airports that might decide to try that but it is important they measure up to strong standards of security.

Q: On security checks for cargo leaving the United States

Hutchinson: We do targeted outbound inspections, we look for shipments that would be illegal and we are concerned with that part of the supply chain as well. We would certainly welcome the recipient nation to put their inspectors on our shores, if they wanted to make that investment to help protect that shipment that is outgoing. We recognize that it is not only inbound but also outbound (cargo) that can pose a risk as well. We are looking at the whole comprehensive supply chain going in both directions. Terrorists can utilize any vulnerability in the system and that would include outbound shipments.

Q: On the Container Security Initiative (operating in 32 international ports)

Hutchinson: We are in phase two, so we will continue until we get the highest percentage possible of the containers coming into our country, I think we are up around seventy per cent coverage through the CSI. There are many ports that are second tier in terms of volume of shipment but they are very important in the supply chain so we will continue to expand it one port at a time, based on our resources.

Q: On port compliance

Hutchinson: It is a requirement of the (US) Coastguard and the international community to verify compliance. Whenever you have a submission of 1000 different vessels and security plans the first enforcement is when they come into our ports, we check the compliance and there have been instances where we have denied entry because they have either been through an insecure port or a port that is out of compliance. But, it has to expand broader than that and we hope the host countries will make sure there is compliance for those international requirements in their own individual port. The Coastguard will review these as well.

Q: On the use of CCTV in public areas

Hutchinson: We recognize the security benefit for surveillance and sophisticated software that would use that surveillance. The City of Chicago has invested in enhanced cameras and surveillance equipment around the city, particularly at the airports and train stations. I think our approach will be more targeted. It is a very useful tool for our transit systems. I think that requirement will enhance that investment but it will be different from Europe because it will probably be on a targeted basis.

Q: On the proposal of a pilot scheme for an international travel register between Britain and the United States

Hutchinson: Homeland Security has a couple of different prospects for an international travel program. We are coordinating and defining how this program would work. We are going to have to look at an area we can pilot it, and a partner, as you mentioned I suggested today that the UK would be a great partner in that. We have a huge passenger load from the UK to the US, we have frequent travelers and if we can simplify identifying who those trusted travelers are and just as significantly it helps us to invest our security resources on those that we have not sorted out as being of minimal risk. So as a security benefit to such a program as well as the convenience of the traveler, the exact parameters of the program and how it will work clearly has not been defined but we are anxious to have a partner in that and I believe it is the right direction to go.

Q: Did you get a positive response from the UK government and if so, do you have a timeframe to work by?

Hutchinson: We are continuing our discussions tomorrow (12 November) and we will wait and see. I would not want to set any specific timeframe. I will tell you that we are actively piloting domestic registered travel programs and we want to move expeditiously in that direction and so naturally we ought to look at an international type of registered travel program so we hope sometime next year to have a pilot that would be in operation.

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