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Remarks by Secretary Napolitano at the National Press Club

Release Date: April 16, 2010

Washington, D.C.
National Press Club

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO: Well, thank you and good afternoon. It's a pleasure to be back at the National Press Club with a different job, some of the same issues but some additional ones as well, as was mentioned in the introduction. Very briefly, before I turn to the actual topic today, which is aviation security in the ever-changing threat environment in which we live, let me briefly describe our department.

It is an amalgam of 22 agencies. It was formed in the wake of 9/11 out of the realization that there were aspects of the federal government that were squirreled away or pieced together in different departments that really should be under one roof.

I'm often asked how one can manage such a large and diverse organization, and what we have done—I was going to give a sarcastic answer there for just a moment, but I think I won't for this audience—but we have done a quadrennial review, which is basically federaless for really doing a long-term plan for the department, the first one ever since it's such a young department. And we have really boiled ourselves down to five major mission areas.

One is the counterterrorism mission—the reason for our founding and a primary thread that runs through almost every area of the department.

The second is securing the borders of the United States, be they land borders, be they at sea, or be they air.

The third is enforcement of our nation's immigration laws, and to do that smartly and effectively even as we advocate for reform of those laws.

The fourth is the protection of cyberspace, and I think we're probably the first department or major department of the federal government to identify cyberspace as a separate and discrete mission area deserving of our protection.

And then the fifth is the ability to prepare in advance for and then respond quickly to any type of emergency that might occur, and be it tornadoes, floods, ice storms, forest fires, hurricanes, tsunamis—we see all of that. And by way of further nuance, we are not the first responders, per se—but what we do is we work with the first responders in states and in cities to make sure they are ready to respond, and then come in when their resources are overwhelmed.

So viewed that way—through that prism, you can see now why the department makes sense and how it all comes together.

But the topic I wanted to talk with you about today was issue of the threat to aviation, and what we are doing both domestically and internationally with respect to aviation security.

Now, we know that al Qaeda and al Qaeda-related groups continue to believe that taking down a commercial airliner or to weaponize a commercial airliner would be a great leap forward in their terrorist view of the world.

We also know that they are a very smart and determined adversary. And so they are very familiar with the steps we have already taken as a country, and indeed as a world, in the wake of what happened on 9/11.

And so our task is not only to respond, but to really think ahead—not just retroactive but proactive—in dealing with that continuing threat to aviation security in a world where aviation is a key engine. It's a key engine of the economy both domestically and internationally. It's a key engine for tourism. It's a key engine for families who live in different places of the world or different states within the United States to be able to get together.

You can't imagine a world, quite frankly, without a safe and secure aviation system. And so our job is to really focus on that, and what we need to do to keep it safe and secure.

And to give you a sense of scale—because this adds some complexity to the issue—every week there are some 2,500 commercial flights carrying half a million people that come into the United States just from Europe—just from Europe. And we have 2.2 billion passengers who fly every year. And 10 million business people, students, visitors, board an international flight bound for the United States each week. Those numbers give you a sense of scale.

So not only do we need to deal with threats as they emerge, we have to be thinking in anticipation of future threats, and the things we do have to be things that enable the system to continue to work.

Now, a lot of what we are doing right now, quite frankly, is because of what happened on Christmas. Many of the things were kind of in the works. We were already planning, for example, the purchase and deployment of advanced imaging technology. You call them body scanners. We call them AITs [Advanced Imaging Technologies].

But I think Christmas put a very stark reminder in people's minds about the fact that aviation continues to be the target of threats, and that the new kinds of threats don't necessarily involve large-scale conspiracies that took months, if not years, to prepare—but displaying individuals who are carrying, not things that are metal that can be picked up in a magnetometer, but powders or liquids or gels that could be detonated in an airplane.

Putting those materials in harder-to-find locations. Making greater use of individuals who don't fit what we think of as a terrorist profile. They may have no derogatory information about them in any intel file, for example. We are seeing the use of women and the recruitment of women for these kinds of missions, which is also a change. So it's an ever-evolving world that we deal with, and an ever-evolving threat situation.

So what have we done since what happened on Christmas? And let me be very precise of what happened on Christmas. On Christmas, the day before, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got on a place in Lagos, Nigeria. He was screened there.

Then he transferred to Amsterdam, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, where he was again re-screened. He did not appear on any screening watchlist that would be available overseas. And he got a plane bound, of course, for Detroit—on which he was unsuccessful in detonating a load of what is called PETN, which is basically a powered form of explosive material.

So the President, in response to that—we did an immediate review. “What went wrong? What went wrong to enable Abdulmutallab to get on this plane and possibly kill not just himself but individuals from 17 other countries?” And what went wrong was twofold.

One was he wasn't on the right watchlists. There was information, but because of some practices in the watchlisting community, he didn't make it onto what's called the selectee list or the no-fly list, the two lists that are actually pushed abroad before someone boards a plane.

Not only have organizations like the NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center] and the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] addressed that and repaired—fixed, that issue, but we are also pushing a lot more information overseas so that individuals at foreign airports, even though they're not U.S. employees, per se, but they have the opportunity to have the benefit of that intelligence.

And then, of course, the second thing that happened is that because he was not on a watchlist, he wasn't given a secondary inspection. And of course, because he wasn't carrying something that was metallic, it didn't get picked up with standard screening equipment.

So what does that mean, and how are we addressing this at the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and at the Department of Homeland Security? Well, I already mentioned the watchlist issue, which is primarily in the hands of the NCTC and the FBI. But we have done some things, too.

For example—pushing more lists overseas. We have domestically, in the airports that are under our supervision—our direct supervision—displayed more types of different types of equipment and mechanisms designed to give us great granularity—more layers of security. So if you get through one, you might not get through the next and you might not get through the next. And—by the way—we don’t do the same thing at every airport. So when you ask your question, “how come this happened to me at this airport but not at this airport?” —that’s because it’s designed to be unpredictable. And why is that? Because those who seek to attack the aviation system depend, in part, on predictability.

But we have added more behavior detection officers. We have added more canine teams. We have added more explosive trace detection for passengers, where your hand is wanded to see if there is any explosive trace on it. And, of course, we have been deploying the advanced imaging technology machines into more and more airports. And, really, by the end of next year I think there will be 1,000-plus such machines that are actually installed in airports around the country.

By the way, the people who actually go through them, and have gone through them, like them. And the more they are used, and the more—quite frankly—we buy and other countries buy, the better the technology gets.

In addition, we have formed a kind of innovative and new partnership with the Department of Energy. And the Department of Energy has, of course, within it the National Labs, and within the National Labs reside some of the best scientific minds of our country. And we have asked them to really help us design the 21st century checkpoint—not just what do we need to do now, but what do we need to be thinking of that would really take us beyond even the kinds of advanced screening that we can do today.

So that work is all underway domestically.

But perhaps the greatest area of reform has been internationally, because one of the things that was so clear on Christmas was that the aviation system is global. And if you get into the system, you potentially have access to airports around the world. And so immediately after Christmas—I think within a week or so after Christmas—I sent the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the Assistant Secretary and several others—we put them on a plane, and they went around the world in 12 days—meeting with ministers of interior, home secretaries, transportation ministers—to begin talking about what we need to do internationally to make sure the global aviation system remains safe and secure.

And then we followed that up with a meeting with ICAO. ICAO is the International Civil Aviation Organization. It is the United Nations branch that deals with global aviation. It was formed in the wake of World War II, to keep global aviation safe.

And so, [National Protection and Programs Directorate] Under Secretary Rand Beers, who is here, went to Montreal to meet with ICAO, and we began a joint initiative where we have been going, region by region, around the world—reaching an international consensus on improved aviation security: better information collection and sharing; better passenger vetting and the sharing of information about passengers before they even get to the airport; stronger cooperation on the development and deployment of technologies—newer technologies; and modernized aviation security standards shared across the world that can be audited and enforced across the world.

We began in Spain, meeting with the ministers of interior of the European Union, and reached a very strong consensus there that resulted in what is now called the Toledo Declaration, for Toledo, Spain. We then went to Mexico City. We had the countries of the Western Hemisphere there, from Canada to Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and others. And that resulted in a regional international consensus known as the Mexico City Declaration.

Several weeks ago we were in Tokyo, Japan—I have been at all of these, by the way—where we again forged an international consensus, with 20-some-odd countries of Asia directly represented there. That’s known as the Tokyo Declaration.

And then, just this past Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, we were in Abuja, Nigeria with ministers from dozens of countries from Africa, which resulted, again, in a strong international consensus known as the Abuja Declaration.

We will finish up in a few weeks in a meeting focused on the Middle East, where we will meet at the UAE [United Arab Emirates] to forge—I think and hope—another international consensus: information collection; information sharing; better technology screening at airports themselves.

And then we will have a global general assembly under the auspices of ICAO in September.

So we will have gone—basically, in nine months—from zero to a revised global consensus on what we need to do to not only react to the threats that we know exist, but build capacity to be proactively dealing with the safety and security of global aviation.

In there, we will need to deal with capacity and resources. Not every country has the same kind of resources. We know that—that’s part of our discussions, moving forward.

But I think it is highly significant that in all of our discussions with all of the issues involved and possible tensions that could have arisen, it is remarkable—to me, anyway—that on this issue, you know, the need to have a safe and secure global aviation system that allows people and goods to travel the globe with every bit of safety and security we can have—there has been no resistance or pushback whatsoever.

Let me close, if I might, on the following. Even with all of this that has gone on, there is no guarantee. There is no guarantee that somewhere, somehow, someone will not manage to successfully destroy an airplane or turn that plane again into a weapon, as was done on 9/11.

We don’t live in a world of guarantees. That’s just not the environment in which we exist. So I am not here to say that there is a guarantee now being provided. What I am here to say is that every step reasonable and that we can conceive of, both domestically and internationally, is being pursued to make sure that aviation remains safe.

And I am also here to say that if something were to happen, we are prepared to respond swiftly, to respond effectively, and to respond strongly. That is our tradition as a country. And that is a tradition that we will uphold, regardless of any circumstance because this nation is one that is very, very strong and, indeed, extraordinarily resilient.

So, with that, let me close my remarks. Thank you for having me. I want to especially thank Rand and Gale Rossides, who have been leading our efforts. I will share with you that when I say that we have been pushing more information overseas, that has been a remarkable effort, not only to push information overseas, but in such a fashion that it is based on intel and threat-based and more precise information so that we no longer have to say that if you’ve traveled through this country, 100 percent of you will get screening which, in the aftermath of Christmas Day, was something that we had to do. So, we have been able to turn that system into a more intelligence-driven system, as well.

So, I would like to thank Gale and I would like to thank Rand for the work of the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security. When I accepted this position, some described it as the ultimate in thankless positions. I don’t need thanks. The men and women of the Department do, because they do a great job. Thank you very much.

Last Updated: 09/21/2018
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