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Press Briefing by Secretary Napolitano on Aviation Security

Release Date: January 26, 2010

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
Contact 202-282-8010


Moderator: Good afternoon. Thank you all for joining us. Secretary Napolitano is going to make some remarks, and then we will take some questions. I will moderate and call on the questioners. And we have about 25 minutes or so.  So, fire away.

Secretary Napolitano: Thank you. Good afternoon. It has been just over a year since I became the Secretary of Homeland Security. And today I want to briefly discuss some of the Department’s key security priorities for the upcoming year.

Let me pause a moment to stress that this is not an exhaustive list. We continue to have ongoing priorities involving cyber, WMD, and emergency response, among others. Yet the attempted attack on the 25th of December was a powerful illustration that terrorists will stop at nothing to kill Americans, and that counterterrorism remains our top priority. This Administration is determined to thwart those plans, to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat terrorist networks through multiple layers of defense, all working in concert with one another.

Now, our Department, despite its name, is not solely responsible for this effort. The fight against terrorism is a broad-based one, involving all instruments of national power:  diplomatic, military, intelligence, and law enforcement. And in that fight, the Department of Homeland Security’s role is very clear: protect air travelers, prevent illegal entry, enforce our immigration laws, and utilize local law enforcement as a force multiplier by sharing intelligence and information with them.

And so, in 2010, the Department of Homeland Security will pursue an ambitious agenda in each of those 4 areas. First, aviation security. We will strengthen aviation security by deploying new technology, law enforcement, and canine assets at domestic airports, and we will embark on an unprecedented international initiative to raise global aviation security.

Now, let me spend a minute discussing this international initiative, because while the Department of Homeland Security does not screen passengers at overseas airports, we must ultimately assume responsibility for the security of flights entering the United States. Last week I was in Toledo, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland, to move this agenda forward. I met with foreign ministers, international aviation officials, and representatives from some of the world’s largest airlines, to talk about how we can collectively strengthen aviation security.

In Spain, I met with foreign counterparts from across Europe, at the invitation of my Spanish colleague, interior minister Alfredo Rubalcaba. It was a rare invitation for a United States official to join these EU working ministerial meetings. And there were four broad areas of discussion: information sharing, passenger vetting, technology, international standards. And, indeed, I was very gratified to see that there exists a broad consensus in working on these four areas among my European counterparts, and a clear sense of urgency to take immediate action to strengthen security measures and identify areas for further progress.

As evidence of this, we signed a joint declaration affirming the commitment to advance initiatives on these and other areas. The gathering in Spain was the first in what will be a series of regional meetings around the globe facilitated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, the United Nations body that supervises global aviation standards.

Last week I was also pleased to find a similarly strong consensus in Geneva, where I met with representatives from more than 20 airlines that are part of the International Air Transport Association, and with officials from ICAO. The private sector’s role in aviation security cannot be overstated. I stressed the importance of working to improve international security standards, and heard a strong response and a commitment to work toward common approaches to aviation security.

I believe we have an important opportunity right now, right in front of us, to strengthen a system that has, for half a century, served as an extraordinary engine for progress and prosperity in the United States, and for countries around the world. But that system has its weak links, and we must address them without delay.

Beyond aviation security, the Department of Homeland Security also has responsibility for the security of our land and our sea ports. Indeed, just because the target of attack was in the air, we cannot afford to take our eye off other targets, which is why, in 2010, we are going to build on the unprecedented effort we exerted in 2009 to deploy resources on the southwestern border, and strengthen security along the northern border. We will continue that effort by bolstering security at our land and seaports through enhancing law enforcement, infrastructure, and technology to ensure that all points along our interconnected border security network remain strong.

Additionally, we will be working to improve information sharing with our federal, state, tribal, and territorial law enforcement partners through a robust network of fusion centers and joint terrorism task forces. Our goal is giving that front line law enforcement the tools they need to confront and to disrupt terrorist threats.

And finally, we will be working with the congress to address changes we can make to our nation’s immigration laws, because we will never have fully effective national security so long as millions of people remain in the shadows in our country. 

Look for announcements of each of these four areas in the weeks ahead. So, with that outline, I would be happy to take questions.

Moderator: Tom (ph)?

Question: Sure. Madame Secretary, on the issues on aviation, the previous administration was trying to do a lot of things that you just talked about. Are your efforts any different from what the previous administration was doing, (inaudible) continuation of those efforts, particularly with regard to information sharing and passenger vetting?

Secretary Napolitano: What we see now is that whereas we were continuing at the bilateral level to do some of the information sharing and passenger vetting agreements -- the API/PNR agreements that you’re familiar with -- what I saw now is a consensus among, for example, the countries of Europe that this needs to be done.  And, indeed, the discussion was not just about data sharing with the United States, but within the EU itself.

So that one of the differences is urgency, and international recognition that the terrorists are going to look for any gap they can find in the system. And they are very strategic about it. And they will go, in an international system, to where they think a gap exists to try to get someone like an Umar Farouk with an explosive like PETN on a plane. That system, our system, should never have allowed that to happen. Now we need to use this as an opportunity, as a catalyst, as it were, for international action.

Question: If I could just follow up, what you’re basically saying is security is as good as its weakest link. And when you talk about technology, which is one of the issues, you’re talking about 100 countries that have non-stop flights to the U.S. (inaudible)?

Secretary Napolitano: Mm-hmm.

Question: (Inaudible) money or the wherewithal to (inaudible) technology?

Secretary Napolitano: Mm-hmm.
Question: What role will the U.S. play in improving technology in countries that might need financial assistance?

Secretary Napolitano: Indeed. And there was a -- there is a frank recognition that some countries lack the resources or the capacity in this area. And so, that’s why ICAO and the involvement with the United Nations is so important. That’s why I said information sharing, passenger vetting, technology, international standards, they all go together. And there needs to be a discussion involving all of the nations of the world about how you support and make sure that all international airports meet at least some basic level, and maintains some basic level. That is one of the major points of this international initiative.

Moderator: Pete (ph)?

Question: Madame Secretary, you mentioned in your opening remarks weapons of mass destruction. Today, a mission appointed by the congress said that the government still doesn’t get it when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological hazards, that little progress has been made, and that the threat is actually getting worse. Is that a fair criticism?

Secretary Napolitano: I haven’t read the report, so I can’t respond to it directly. What I can say is that the Administration has -- had major initiatives on detection in the bio area, on diagnosis in the bio area, on medical countermeasures that can be taken in the bio area, on response and recovery in the bio area, and that we will continue to be working on that issue, as well. That’s why I mentioned it in my opening paragraph.

Question: Apart from the report, then, how big a priority is it for the government to be able to counter the biological threat?

Secretary Napolitano: It is a big priority. And we know that it is one of the things that terrorists could use in the future, or indeed, even now. It runs across the federal government, across the administration. Major measures have been taken in the past 11 months, 10 months, as I described. But, obviously, this is an area that we are going to continue to work on. The goal is to keep the American people safe.

Question: I just wanted to check. The four things that you said came out of these meetings seem to have been things that were on -- have been on the table, or should have been on the table for -- you know, since September 11. And yet we’re talking about things like a clear sense of urgency. You know, why did it take so long to get people to the table to sign a declaration that they’re going to affirm a commitment to this sort of thing?

And if it hasn’t taken us this long, if we have already done that, then what’s new about this? I guess what is new about this, and why has it taken this long to get there?

Secretary Napolitano: Well, one of the things that is new is the international consensus that has been reached, that this –

Question:  There was not an international –

Secretary Napolitano: Not in this -- not at the level we are talking about, no. You would have to ask perhaps internationally. But again, what we have now is -- and are building -- an international consensus. There is a sense of urgency. We are moving forward. And the United States will play a major role.

But I must emphasize that this is the community of nations. And the recognition by these nations that there were passengers from 17-plus countries on Flight 253, all of whom would have perished if Abdul Mutallab had been successful –

Question: Do you have any sense of why this failed thing gave a sense of urgency to the international community when September 11th didn’t give a sense of urgency?

Secretary Napolitano: Well, September 11th obviously gave a sense of urgency. But that sense of urgency perhaps dissipated over time, and has been now not only renewed but also added to. The September 11th attack was a large-scale conspiracy involving the take-over of airplanes, and flying them as weapons into buildings. The kind of attack that Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was -- embarked upon was a single individual who was able to get on a plane with PETN packed around his body. That’s a very different kind of thing from a detection, information-sharing, passenger vetting type of environment. And so that’s why it is necessary to use December 25th as the catalyst, and say, “Nations of the world, we all have an interest in this.”

The international aviation system is international in every respect. It is only as strong as its weakest link. We need to get together this year, right now, and move to get the agreements that have been discussed for years, discussed by my predecessors, get them done, get them implemented, get technology moving in the right direction, and move to increase capacity at international airports across the world.

Moderator:  Mark (ph)?

Question: It seems to me, from what we know of the Christmas Day attack, the weakest link in the process that we know about was the passenger screening (inaudible). And in the case of this guy, he could have been screened in two different ways. He could have been screened physically (inaudible). He also could have been screened, you know, in a questioning way, based on the information which was discovered when the plane was -- had taken off and was in the air, that there was a hit in the system about his father having come and complained (inaudible).

What are you doing specifically to try and improve, number one, the physical screening at these foreign airports, like Amsterdam, immediately, in the short term, and what are you doing to push that information that you have in the system -- in this particular case, (inaudible) the people at the airport so they can use it for screening the guy before he gets on the plane, not after he gets on.

Secretary Napolitano: Indeed. A couple of things. As you know, we don’t do screening at international airports, just as we don’t, you know, prepare the no-fly list. We receive the no-fly list. Yet there are things that are happening right now. Number one is, given this new international sense of urgency, governments around the world -- including the government in Amsterdam -- have already moved on the technology front. They are moving to add whole-body images, for example, explosives detection equipment, more canine teams, more personnel, greater screening within the airport environment itself.

You will see that when you go to Amsterdam, you will see that when you go to Heathrow, you will see that when you go to the Charles de Gaulle in Paris, you will see that in Frankfurt, in Germany. So international countries, based on what we have seen and what they discerned happened on Christmas Day, already are moving on the technology front.

The advantage, or the thing that we are going to be doing, is all now moving on the -- what is the next iteration of technology? What can we do to make -- improve the likelihood that you pick up a potential bomber like Umar Farouk, but at a minimum of invasiveness and inconvenience to the traveling public? What’s the next iteration? How do we do that? 

And so, that’s why we have inked a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Energy. They have, in turn, gotten the national labs in the United States involved on this very issue. What is the next iteration of screening technology for the United States?

Now, with respect to the information sharing, part two of your question, one of the things we have done is taken a particular part of the State Department’s database -- I think it’s P3B (ph) data -- which is where, if that had been available in Amsterdam rather than in Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab would have been pulled aside for secondary questioning, or we would have recommended to the Dutch that they pull him aside for secondary questioning. Again, since we don’t control the airport -- but we would have recommended that that happen.

So, we have now pushed that particular kind of information out internationally, so it, like the no-fly list and the terrorist screening database, is available before somebody boards an airplane, not while they’re in flight.

Question: So you’re making that into the -- you’re putting that into the hands of the foreign governments, or (inaudible) --

Secretary Napolitano: In Amsterdam we actually have some U.S. officials who located there. They will get it. They, in turn, will give it to the Dutch.

Moderator: Mike (ph)?

Question: Madame Secretary, State of the Union is tomorrow. Just wondering if you or the Department have had any input on that. And, if so, (inaudible)?

Secretary Napolitano: I don’t think it appropriate to talk about what the President is going to talk about tomorrow night.

Question: But did you guys offer any input into it?

Secretary Napolitano: Again, we’re always offering input on lots of things.

Question: Ma’am, thanks for being with us. You did some talk shows right after this happened, and you were asked if this was an al-Qaeda plot, and you said it’s too early to say whether or not it was or not. I believe it was the next day the President came out and called Abdul Mutallab an isolated extremist. A few days after that, the President came out again. It became clear that he was not an isolated extremist, he was an al-Qaeda (inaudible) operative.

My question is, how did the U.S. Government get it so wrong, in terms of who this guy was, and who sent him here to kill Americans or other people who were on that plane to Detroit? How did we get it so wrong? And did that affect the posture, literally, in terms of defending the country, if people were assuming for several days there after this attempted attack, that he was not with a terrorist group, in spite of the sophistication of the bomb, he was just one guy, an isolated extremist? Did that change the defensive posture of this country? But again, how did we get it so wrong, that he wasn’t with an al-Qaeda franchise?

Secretary Napolitano: Well, I think in answer to the first part of the question, I don’t know that it was that so much as making sure that the right information was given to the public about who this fellow really was, and who he was associated with. It had absolutely no impact on our response. We immediately, while flights were in the air, notified pilots to alert their flight crews what to watch out for. We immediate alerted international partners and airlines around the world to increase their screening of potential passengers. We immediately increased security at domestic airports within the United States. And that was all happening, some of that within 60, 90, 120 minutes of the actual attack. So –

Question: So you did assume that there could be 10 more guys, 20 more guys, 50 more –

Secretary Napolitano: Right.

Question:  -- Abdul Mutallabs. But yet, there was this assumption, though, that he was not  -- he was an isolated extremist. That’s what the President said. How did -- why did that get out there? I know you don’t speak for the President, but as his Homeland Security director, how did that -- how did he get that wrong?

Secretary Napolitano: James (ph), I’m going to say there was no -- operationally, which is where the Department lives, we assume the worst until we know that it’s not the worst. And we assumed that we needed to immediately provide information across the globe, both to carriers themselves, to domestic airports, and to international airports and international law enforcement. We practice this, because of that kind of an operational assumption. We carried out an assumption that there was an attempted terrorist attack on a plane, and then moved accordingly.

Moderator: Mike (inaudible).

Question: You talked about how there is this renewed sense of urgency in the international community. I was wondering about domestically. It seems, if I recall, during one of your first speeches you barely mentioned the word “terrorism.” You talked about the need for immigration reform and other things, but you barely mentioned terrorism.  And it seems to be the theme of your event today. Is there also a renewed sense of urgency within your own Department?

Secretary Napolitano: We have always had terrorism as our top priority. I think the attack of December 25 is something that instills in all of us the recognition that al-Qaeda and its adherents, and some of the spin-off groups, literally will stop at nothing to kill Americans. 

And while we do not want to be a nation that lives in fear -- and that’s why we want to supply as much information to the public as we can, and we want to make sure that we are resilient, because there are no guarantees in this world that somebody won’t succeed, right -- but nonetheless, I think that we are -- we were created in the wake of 9/11, and our priorities are now shaped around the counter-terrorism activity we must undergo in aviation, but also in other areas that are within this Department: the land, the seaports, immigration, and looking at the security issues involving immigration if we don’t get immigration reform. So, that’s what we are going to do.

Question: Very quickly –

Secretary Napolitano: Sure.

Question: The Olympics are just around the corner. I don’t know what the terror picture is. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about the terror picture surrounding the Olympics.

Secretary Napolitano: Right. We have been working with the Canadians all year long on the security for the Olympics. We have a joint command center up near the border. We also have taken other measures. And we will be working very closely with them.  Obviously, they are the lead.  It’s -- they are the host nation. But we are providing a lot of support to them.

Question: As far as people attending the Olympics, is there any special concern beyond the normal concerns?

Secretary Napolitano: No.

Moderator: We just have time for one last question.

Question: A couple of things. On the aviation side, you mentioned that there is this new sense of urgency, and you have these agreements that you’re working with. But I noticed that some of the agreements mentioned, of course, that any security can’t violate the laws of the nations. And there are various privacy laws in many of these nations, and this has been a problem in the past.

Are you going to truly be able to get the information you need on the passengers that are coming here, given the laws that exist in the EU and other places?

Secretary Napolitano: The discussions we had in Europe were not only getting information, but standardizing the kind of information that we get so it’s the most useful in identifying, ahead of time, passengers and giving us greater ability to run passenger lists against the terrorist watch lists, the no-fly lists, and the like.

We understand that in Europe there are privacy laws that are different than those in the United States. But they have a joint interest in the security of their citizenry, as well. And we believe that we can reach these agreements and get this information and share it, but also do it in a way that deals with their privacy issues, as with the U.S.  I mean, our privacy office has been involved in these from the beginning.

And we have been on the cusp so many times already with several nations. Again, I don’t know that there is a new sense of urgency, but a renewed sense of urgency that we are talking about in the international realm. It’s aviation security, it’s the security of our land and our seaports of entry. It’s information sharing so that state and local law enforcement can serve as a force multiplier across our country. These are the kinds of initiatives that this Department can employ to keep the American public safe. And that’s what we are focused upon.

Moderator: Thanks, everybody.

Question: Just really quickly, are we pressing to get that information, that passenger information, more quickly, sooner?

Secretary Napolitano: Yes. In some countries the answer is yes. Thank you all.


Last Updated: 02/29/2024
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