is another excerpt from the book I'm writing on technology, terrorism, and my
time at DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the category on the
right labeled "excerpts from the book.") Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address. I'm still looking for an agent and a
publisher, so feel free to make recommendations on that score too.
The problem of jet travel, at its heart, is a matter of seconds.
At our airports, when international flights arrive, we can spend no more than thirty seconds with each traveler. In those thirty seconds, we have to decide who should be waved through and who should get more detailed attention. Indeed, thirty seconds is probably more than we can afford to spend; anyone who has experienced the lines at JFK or Dulles when all the international flights arrive together knows that they are dehumanizing and exhausting – not exactly a welcoming ceremony.
Our solution was to use information about the traveler more effectively. In the end, we boiled our border solution down to what we called the three Who’s: Who is coming the U.S.? Who are we worried about? And, finally, is this person who he says he is?
Answering the first question – who’s coming to the U.S.? -- required a major effort. To find out, in advance, who was coming here, we had to get information from the airlines about the passengers they were carrying. In the end, we had to insist that all international travelers, even those who didn’t need a visa, must provide information about themselves before they traveled.
Answering the second question – who are we worried about? -- meant assembling a list of known or suspected terrorists. We had to knock heads in the bureaucracy to ensure that each agency was contributing to a single list.
More importantly, we needed data. We needed information from other countries; if you want to know who the terrorism suspects are in Hungary, chances are that the Hungarian authorities have better sources than the FBI or CIA.
We also needed information that would help us spot new recruits who hadn’t yet come to the attention of the authorities.
Aussie ranchers call their unbranded calves “clean skins.” Their intelligence agencies have borrowed the term to describe terrorists who don’t yet have a record. They are every terrorist’s dream and every government’s nightmare. But no terror recruit is perfectly clean – with the right information, subtle connections can be found and risky travelers identified.
That was the heart of the solution. If we got data in advance, we could identify the tiny fraction of travelers who should be pulled aside for additional screening. The thirty second interview in the booth was no longer our only chance to find bad guys. Instead, it would become a backstop – a chance to doublecheck work that had been done in advance.
In theory, that should have been enough. If you know who you’re worried about and who’s coming, you can do the sorting on that basis. But terrorists aren’t always so obliging, or so stupid. If the government screens travelers based on who they are, then the terrorists will try to defeat the system by changing identities.
That’s why we had to answer the third question -- is the traveler really who he says he is? We had to lock travelers to a single identity, by raising security standards for passports around the world, and by recording travelers’ fingerprints that so that terrorists couldn’t use different passports to enter the United States. Even if they managed to fool another country into issuing a passport in a false name, they wouldn’t be able to fool us.