In the wake of the foiled terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff tells National Review Online that the United States needs to “aggressively pursue” more whole-body imaging during primary searches at airports. He also says that the U.S. needs to “press Europeans” to be more vigilant in alerting American authorities after they reject someone’s visa. (It turns out that Britain had rejected the visa-renewal application of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused in the failed Flight 253 bomb plot.)
“We can’t let squeamishness get in the way of security,” says Chertoff. “A couple of years ago, we began testing whole-body imagers that give us the ability to see what people are concealing under their clothing while hiding their faces. The ACLU pushed backed, calling the machines a ‘virtual strip search.’ They were treated as a loony imposition on an unsuspecting American public. Then many members of Congress voted this year to prevent us from using this technology except during secondary searches. Now we know that this is exactly the kind of technology that needs to be deployed during primary searches — and we can’t waste any more time.”
When it comes to foreign governments’ communicating with the U.S. about their visa rejections, Chertoff says that “our control overseas is limited,” but that it’s crucial to improve how governments notify each other. “If [Abdulmutallab] was rejected, was that information shared with us? If not, why not? If privacy rules precluded that from happening, those rules need to be reevaluated. Why did the heads-up to Nigerian authorities not translate into suspending this guy’s visa? All of these questions need to be answered.” Chertoff adds that the U.S. State Department should investigate these visa issues.
President Obama’s call on Monday to investigate America’s “watch list” is fine, but the watch list is not the key part of the problem, says Chertoff. “I don’t think the watch list is confusing,” he says. “It contains about 20,000 names. [Abdulmutallab] was not on it, but he was on our larger, preliminary information database. If we started screening everyone on that larger list, we’d be hearing from Congress and civil libertarians for keeping thousands of people off of planes.” The Obama administration, adds Chertoff, will be judged in the coming days by “what action is taken” on these issues.