Talk about lousy timing.
As British authorities earlier this year expanded their probe of suspects in the transatlantic air bombing plot, authorities on this side of the pond scrapped plans to require airlines with flights originating overseas to provide U.S. Customs with a list of passengers before takeoff, WorldNetDaily has learned.
Airline lobbyists complained the new rule would delay flights and effectively killed it in January – several weeks after British authorities began conducting surveillance on Pakistani Britons allegedly plotting to blow U.S. airliners out of the Atlantic sky.
That the Department of Homeland Security didn’t push back and instead ditched the key security rule calls into question the degree to which top officials here were involved in the highly sensitive London investigation at the time.
Customs officials at the national targeting center in Washington say they need at least an hour to check such high-risk passengers against no-fly lists and other antiterror databases and intercept them prior to boarding.
Yet they continue to receive passenger data 15 minutes after flights bound for the U.S. take off, meaning passengers flagged as a possible threat have already boarded the aircraft – posing a danger to both the flight and any likely targets in its path.
“The system is seriously flawed,” an official said. “We’re flying blind at this end.”
The delay in receiving the vital information – which is transmitted electronically – has led to costly flight diversions over the Atlantic since 9-11.
Last Monday, in fact, an American Airlines flight from London to Boston had to be diverted after Customs belatedly learned a Middle Eastern man on board appeared to match a name on the no-fly list. The possible threat was discovered only after the plane departed Heathrow. On high alert, U.S. officials thought they might be looking at one of the bombers, but it was a false alarm.
It wasn’t until the Brits closed in on the terrorists three weeks ago – after intercepting a message from Pakistan urging the cell to rush the plan – that DHS went back to the airlines and proposed a modified version of the plan requiring them to provide the information no later than 15 minutes before, not after, takeoff.
A notice of the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on July 14.
A final rule will be issued after a 30-day public comment period has closed and the comments have been reviewed and analyzed. The London-base al-Qaida cell reportedly picked Aug. 16 as doomsday for their foiled plot, which involved downing as many as 10 U.S.-bound jetliners with suicide bombers.
The airline industry – both domestic and foreign – has bucked the advanced passenger reporting requirement arguing it would cost millions in flight delays.
The Air Transport Association and the Association of European Airlines last year fired off a strongly worded letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff opposing the department’s original proposal requiring airlines post passenger manifests 60 minutes prior to departures. “Such a rule will result in severe adverse consequences for the airline industry,” they asserted.
DHS backed off even though Congress in 2004 mandated that such information be provided to the government before departure of the aircraft. Now the department is offering airlines a compromise proposal to share passenger name records as they check in for the flight, up to 15 minutes before departure.
The new proposal – which could still allow Customs to block suspect persons from boarding or remove them before the plane leaves the ground – is called APIS Quick Query.
After dodging a major sky terror disaster and possible bankruptcy, the airline industry will likely warm to the modified proposal now, officials say. Both British and U.S. air carriers were in the dark about the threat until this past week.
But it’s still up to DHS headquarters to put the proposal into effect, and the sooner the better, officials say. For now, the proposal remains just that, a proposal – even as commercial aviation operates under DHS’ highest terror-threat security alert and authorities suspect some plane bombers assigned to the plot may still be at large.
“Until Homeland Security moves forward on this issue, the possibility will remain that terrorists who could have been stopped beforehand will manage to board airplanes bound for the United States,” warns former senior DHS official Clark Kent Ervin, author of “Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable To Attack.” “By the time DHS finds out about it, it may well be too late.”