WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States announced new security measures on Friday to replace the mandatory screening of air travelers from 14 mostly Muslim countries that had angered some allies when it was imposed after a failed bombing on Christmas Day.
The measures are designed to significantly reduce the number of passengers pulled aside for additional screening and will not be based on nationality or passport, but on characteristics pulled together by intelligence agencies.
“These new measures utilize real-time, threat-based intelligence along with multiple, random layers of security, both seen and unseen, to more effectively mitigate evolving terrorist threats,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
A senior administration official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the new system would require travelers who match information about terrorism suspects, such as a physical description, partial name or travel pattern, to undergo additional screening.
“So it’s much more tailored to what the intel is telling us, what the threat is telling us, as opposed to stopping all individuals of a particular nationality or all individuals using a particular passport,” the official said.
He described the measures being scrapped as a “blunt-force instrument.”
The names of terrorism suspects identified by the U.S. government will continue to be included on security watch lists and no-fly lists as a part of airline security.
The new policy affects all travelers coming into the United States from abroad. The measures in force since January required that passengers traveling to the United States from 14 countries be subjected to especially rigorous pre-flight screening.
The U.S. government implemented those security measures after a Nigerian man tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a flight to Detroit from Amsterdam on December 25.
Questions have been raised about why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was charged with trying to blow up the airliner, was not stopped before he got on the flight.
Senator Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the new screening protocols were a more effective security strategy.
“Applying a kind of blanket, ‘one-size-fits-all’ scrutiny to individuals based solely on their country of origin provides only limited additional security and helps terrorists avoid detection by using operatives from other countries to carry out their plots,” Collins said.
The 14 countries were those on the U.S. list of “state sponsors of terrorism” — Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria — as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Nigeria — U.S. partners in the fight against al Qaeda — were angered at being on the list.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations civil rights group, which had criticized the old guidelines as racial and religious profiling, praised the new measures.
“We applaud the Obama administration’s new passenger screening policy because it does what security experts and civil libertarians have always asked for — it screens passengers based on actual suspicious behaviors or actions, not on national origin or religion,” said Nihad Awad, the group’s national executive director.
Under the new measures, if there was information about an individual of interest coming from a particular Asian country who recently traveled to certain countries in the Middle East and was of a certain nationality and age range, that data would be compared with travelers to the United States at foreign airports.
Anyone who fits the data could be subjected to additional screening procedures and pulled aside for questioning by airline or airport security officials.
U.S. officials have been consulting with countries and foreign carriers with direct flights to the United States about airline security, the administration official said.
The U.S. government also released on Friday a review of rail security conducted over the past year in a report called “Surface Transportation Security Priority Assessment” that provides recommendations and guidelines on improving security on rail transportation.
Editing by David Alexander and Mohammad Zargham