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  4. Written testimony of CBP for a House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Protective Security hearing titled “Raising the Standard: DHS’s Efforts to Improve Aviation Security Around the Globe”

Written testimony of CBP Office of Field Operations Executive Assistant Commissioner Todd Owen for a House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Transportation and Protective Security hearing titled “Raising the Standard: DHS’s Efforts to Improve Aviation Security Around the Globe”

Release Date: September 26, 2017

210 House Capitol Visitor Center

Good afternoon, Chairman Katko, Ranking Member Watson Coleman, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) role in cargo and passenger security as it pertains to commercial air service.

In response to 9/11 and the persisting threats from terrorists and criminals who have long viewed aviation as a leading target for attack and/or exploitation, CBP continues to adapt its security approach and strengthen its ability to detect and mitigate diverse threats through a multilayered, risk-based system. As the lead Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency for border security, CBP works closely with our domestic and international partners to deny terrorist exploitation of the aviation sector and to protect the Nation from a variety of dynamic threats, including those posed by passengers, cargo and commercial conveyances arriving at our ports of entry (POE).

CBP utilizes a risk-based strategy and operational approach to secure and facilitate the immense volume of international trade and travel. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, CBP officers processed more than 390 million travelers at air, land, and sea POEs, including more than 119 million air travelers. CBP officers also processed more than 27 million imported cargo containers at POEs in FY 2016, equating to $2.28 trillion in imports.Air import values account for approximately 25 percent.1

CBP’s security and facilitation missions are mutually supportive: by utilizing a risk-based strategy and multilayered security approach, CBP can focus time and resources on those suspect shipments and passengers that are high-risk. This approach separates known and unknown air travelers and allows CBP to facilitate legitimate trade and travel, which are critical to America’s economic growth.

By leveraging intelligence-driven analysis, innovative partnerships, and advanced technology, CBP secures and promotes the movement of legitimate cargo and travelers transiting through the aviation environment. This multilayered approach is designed to detect, identify, and prevent potentially dangerous or inadmissible individuals or dangerous cargo from boarding planes bound for the United States and is integrated into every aspect of our rigorous travel and cargo security operations at every stage along the international trade and travel continuum.

1 Air import values account for approximately 25 percent.


Air Cargo Security

CBP’s cargo security approach incorporates three layered elements to improve supply chain integrity, promote economic viability, and increase resilience across the entire global supply chain system.

Advance Information and Targeting

First, CBP leverages advance information about cargo, conveyances, and persons, and tailored targeting techniques to increase domain awareness and assess the risk of all components and factors in the supply chain. CBP, supported by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), recently extended the Air Cargo Advance Screening (ACAS) pilot,2 which began after the global counterterrorism community discovered and disrupted a potential terrorist attack in October 2010 that would have occurred mid-air over the continental United States, using explosive devices concealed in cargo on board two aircrafts destined to the United States. This incident demonstrated the significance of early advance information in identifying and disrupting terrorist attempts to exploit the global supply chain. While CBP had already been receiving some advance electronic information for air shipments prior to arrival in the United States, this incident exposed the need to collect certain advance information to enable CBP and TSA to target and mitigate high-risk shipments prior to the loading of cargo onto aircraft destined for the United States. The ACAS pilot program requests that the inbound carrier or other eligible party electronically transmit specified advance cargo data (ACAS data) to CBP for air cargo transported onboard U.S.-bound aircraft as early as practicable, but no later than prior to loading of the cargo onto the aircraft.

This advance information requirement is a critical element of CBP’s targeting efforts at the National Targeting Center (NTC) and enhances CBP’s capability to identify high-risk cargo without hindering legitimate trade and commerce. The NTC, established in 2001, coordinates and supports CBP’s counterterrorism activities related to the movement of cargo in all modes of transportation – sea, truck, rail, and air. Using the Automated Targeting System (ATS), the NTC proactively analyzes advance cargo information before shipments depart foreign ports. ATS incorporates the latest cargo threat intelligence and national targeting rule-sets to generate a uniform review of cargo shipments, and provides comprehensive data for the identification of high-risk shipments. ATS is a critical decision-support tool for CBP officers working at the NTC, the Advanced Targeting Units at our POEs, and foreign ports.

Government and Private Sector Collaboration

Second, in addition to CBP’s targeting capabilities, a critical component of CBP’s effort to extend our cargo security to the point of origin is our effective partnerships with private industry. CBP works with the trade community through the Customs -Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program, which is a public-private partnership program wherein members of the trade community volunteer to adopt tighter security measures throughout their international supply chains in exchange for enhanced trade facilitation, such as expedited processing. C-TPAT membership has rigorous security criteria, and requires extensive vetting and on-site validation visits of domestic and/or foreign facilities. This program has enabled CBP to leverage private sector resources to enhance supply chain security and integrity on a global level.

C-TPAT membership has grown from just seven companies in 2001 to more than 11,000 companies today, accounting for more than 54 percent (by value) of goods imported into the United States. The C-TPAT program continues to expand and evolve as CBP works with foreign partners to establish bi-lateral mutual recognition of respective C-TPAT-like programs. Mutual Recognition as a concept is reflected in the World Customs Organization’s Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade, a strategy designed with the support of the United States, which enables Customs Administrations to work together to improve their capabilities to detect high-risk consignments and expedite the movement of legitimate cargo. These arrangements create a unified and sustainable security posture that can assist in securing and facilitating global cargo trade while promoting end-to-end supply chain security. CBP currently has signed Mutual Recognition Arrangements with New Zealand, the European Union, South Korea, Japan, Jordan, Canada, Taiwan, Israel, Mexico, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic and is continuing to work towards similar recognition with China, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, and India.

Advanced Detection Equipment and Technology

Finally, CBP maintains robust inspection regimes at our POEs, including the use of non-intrusive inspection (NII) equipment, canines, and radiation detection technologies. NII technology enables CBP to detect materials that pose potential nuclear or radiological threats, and other materials, including illicit narcotics such as heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and illicit prescription drugs. Technologies deployed to our Nation’s land, sea, and air POEs include large-scale X-ray and Gamma-ray imaging systems, as well as a variety of portable and handheld technologies. NII technologies are force multipliers that enable us to screen or examine a larger portion of the stream of commercial traffic while facilitating the flow of legitimate cargo. Canine operations are also an invaluable component of CBP’s cargo security operations. CBP canine teams work at international mail facilities to examine millions of foreign mail shipments coming into the United States from all parts of the world.

These interrelated elements are part of a comprehensive cargo security strategy that enables CBP to identify and address the potential use of containerized cargo to transport dangerous materials, before they arrive at our Nation’s border.

2 https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/07/24/2017-15441/extension-of-the-air-cargo-advance-screening-acas-pilot-program.


Air Passenger Security

On a typical day, CBP welcomes to the United States more than 300,000 international travelers at our Nation’s airports. One of the initial layers of defense in securing international air travel is preventing dangerous persons from obtaining visas, travel authorizations, and boarding passes. Before boarding a flight destined for the United States, most foreign nationals3/ must obtain a nonimmigrant or immigrant visa – issued by a U.S. embassy or consulate – or, if they are eligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), they must apply and be approved for a travel authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

Pre-departure Safeguards

Through ESTA, CBP conducts enhanced vetting of VWP applicants in advance of travel to the United States, to assess whether they are eligible to travel under the VWP, or whether they could pose a risk to the United States or the public at large. All ESTA applications are screened against security and law enforcement databases, and CBP automatically refuses authorization to individuals who are found to be ineligible to travel to the United States under the VWP. Similarly, current and valid ESTAs may be revoked if concerns arise through recurrent vetting.

In response to increasing concerns regarding foreign fighters and other terrorist threats, DHS continues to strengthen the security of VWP including by implementing enhancements to ESTA. Recent enhancements include a series of additional questions VWP travelers must answer on the ESTA application, including other names and citizenships; parents’ names; contact and employment information; city of birth; travel history in select countries. These improvements are designed to provide an additional layer of security for the VWP and increase our ability to distinguish between lawful applicants and individuals of concern.

Any traveler who requires a nonimmigrant visa to travel to the United States must apply to the Department of State (DOS) under specific visa categories depending on the purpose of their travel, including those as visitors for business, pleasure, study, and employment-based purposes. Prior to the issuance of a visa, the DOS screens every visa applicant’s biographic data against the DOS Consular Lookout and Support System, and provides data to the inter-agency community via the streamlined DOS Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) process to alert consular officers to the existence of Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) files or records related to potential visa ineligibilities. DOS also checks the applicant’s biometric data (i.e., fingerprints and facial images) against other U.S. Government databases for records indicating potential security, criminal, and immigration violations.

In an effort to augment visa security operations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Visa Security Program (VSP) personnel are co-located with CBP personnel at the NTC to conduct thorough and collaborative analysis and in-depth investigations of high-risk visa applicants. The VSP is focused on identifying terrorists and criminal suspects and preventing them from exploiting the visa process, while the NTC provides tactical targeting and analytical research in support of preventing terrorist and terrorist weapons from entering the United States.

Furthermore, ICE, CBP, and DOS have implemented an automated visa application screening process that significantly expands DHS’s ability to identify serious threats to national security and public safety. The program enables synchronized reviews of information across these agencies and allows for a unified DHS response and recommendation regarding a visa applicant’s eligibility to receive a visa. This process also serves as a precursor to and works in conjunction with the current DOS SAO and Advisory Opinion (AO) programs. The collaborative program leverages the three agencies’ expertise, authorities, and technologies to screen pre-adjudicated (approved) visa applications and enhance the U.S. Government’s anti-terrorism efforts.

Once travel is booked, CBP’s NTC gathers information, assesses risk, and conducts pre-departure vetting for all international flights departing for the United States by commercial air. CBP leverages all available advance passenger data4 — including Passenger Name Record (PNR) and Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) data, previous crossing information, intelligence, and law enforcement information, as well as open source information in its counterterrorism efforts at the NTC — to make risk-based operational decisions before a passenger boards an aircraft, continuing until the traveler is admitted to the United States.

CBP’s pre-departure vetting efforts work in concert with TSA’s Secure Flight program, which vets passengers flying to, from, over, and within the United States against the No Fly and Selectee portions of the TSDB.

Overseas Enforcement Programs and Partnerships

Supported by these targeting efforts, CBP uses overseas enforcement capabilities and partnerships to extend our zone of security. Working in conjunction with the NTC, CBP’s overseas programs — Preclearance, Immigration Advisory and Joint Security Programs (IAP/JSP), and Regional Carrier Liaison Groups (RCLGs) — provide the ability to address those risks or prevent the movement of identified threats toward the United States at the earliest possible point.

Preclearance provides for the complete inspection, including determination of an alien’s admissibility to the United States for all travelers before passengers ever board a U.S.-bound flight from a foreign location at which preclearance is established. Through preclearance, CBP is able to work with foreign law enforcement officials and commercial carriers to prevent the boarding of potentially high-risk travelers, leveraging law enforcement authorities consistent with the governing agreements, as opposed to serving a purely advisory role. Preclearance also provides unique facilitation benefits, generally allowing precleared passengers to proceed to their final destination without further CBP processing, as if they had arrived on a domestic flight. It is important to note, however, that CBP always retains the authority to conduct further inspection or engage in enforcement action of a precleared flight upon its arrival in the United States. CBP currently has 15 Preclearance locations in six countries: Dublin and Shannon in Ireland; Aruba; Freeport and Nassau in The Bahamas; Bermuda; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg in Canada.

Building upon the success of existing Preclearance operations, CBP intends to expand the program to new locations. DHS prioritization for expansion includes technical site visits to interested airports, during which each airport is carefully evaluated based on the current and future capacity to host CBP Preclearance operations and aviation security screening meeting TSA standards, as well as an analysis of the potential facilitation and homeland security benefits. CBP is currently negotiating with several countries interested in establishing Preclearance operations, and recently concluded agreements to cover Stockholm, Sweden (signed November 4, 2016) and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (signed December 1, 2016).

Through IAP, CBP officers in plain clothes are posted at major gateway airports in Western Europe, with a presence in Asia and the Middle East including: Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, and Doha. Building on the IAP concept, CBP launched the JSP, partnering with host country law enforcement to identify high-risk travelers. JSP officers are posted in Mexico City, Panama City and San Salvador.

Finally, Regional Carrier Liaison Groups (RCLG) were developed to provide coverage of non-IAP airports and support Preclearance airports. CBP coordinates with the RCLGs to prevent terrorists and other inadmissible aliens from boarding U.S.-bound commercial aircraft. The RCLGs, which are located in Honolulu, Miami, and New York, are staffed by CBP officers and utilize established relationships with the commercial airlines to prevent passengers who may pose a security threat, who present fraudulent documents, or those who are otherwise inadmissible from boarding flights to the United States.

Arrival Processing

CBP’s use of advance information and targeting are key elements of CBP’s multilayered security strategy to address concerns long before they reach the physical border of the United States. It is important to note that upon arrival in the United States, all persons, regardless of citizenship, are subject to inspection by CBP officers. CBP officers review entry documents, collect biometrics,5 query CBP and other law enforcement databases with both biographic and biometric information, and interview each traveler to confirm identity, determine the purpose and intent of their travel, and whether any further inspection is necessary based on, among other things, national security, admissibility, customs, or agriculture concerns.

During arrival processing, CBP officers remove from circulation counterfeit, fraudulent, and altered travel documents, as well as lost or stolen travel documents presented for use by an individual other than the rightful holder. In FY 2016, CBP intercepted 7,689 fraudulent documents. CBP’s Fraudulent Document Analysis Unit maintains a central fraudulent document repository and provides analysis, intelligence, alerts, and training back to the field. Furthermore, through the Carrier Liaison Program, CBP officers provide interactive training to commercial air carrier participants to improve the air carrier’s ability to detect and disrupt improperly documented passengers. Since the program’s inception in 2005, CLP has provided training to more than 36,341 airline industry personnel.

Furthermore, CBP Tactical Terrorism Response Teams (TTRT) of CBP officers who are specially trained in counterterrorism response are deployed at the 46 largest POEs – including 22 POEs added in Calendar Year 2017 to conduct advanced interview training. TTRT officers are responsible for the examination of travelers identified within the TSDB as well as other travelers, their associates, or co-travelers who arrive at POE and are suspected of having a nexus to terrorist activity. TTRT officers work closely with NTC analysts to exploit information derived from targeting and inspection to mitigate any possible threat. During FY 2017, through September 7, more than 1,400 individuals were denied entry to the United States as a result of TTRT efforts and information discovered during the secondary inspection at POEs.

3 Exceptions would be citizens of countries under other visa exempt authority, such as Canada. Citizens of countries under visa exempt authority entering the U.S. via air are subjected to CBP’s vetting and inspection processes prior to departure. In the land environment, they are subjected to CBP processing upon arrival at a U.S. POE.
4 When a traveler purchases a ticket for travel to the United States on a commercial air carrier, a PNR may be generated in the airline’s reservation system. PNR data contains information on itinerary, co-travelers, changes to the reservation, and payment information. CBP receives passenger data from commercial air carriers at various intervals up to 96 hours prior to departure and concluding at the scheduled departure time. Further, APIS regulations require that commercial air carriers transmit all passenger and crew manifest information before departure, prior to securing the aircraft doors. CBP vets APIS information, which includes passenger biographic data and travel document information, on all international flights to and from the United States against the TSDB, criminal history information, records of lost or stolen passports, public health records, and prior immigration or customs violations and visa refusals.
5 Generally speaking, biometrics are collected from aliens arriving at U.S. airports, except for: (i) certain Canadian citizens temporarily visiting the United States; (ii) children under the age of 14; (iii) persons over the age of 79; and (iv) aliens admitted on A-1, A-2, C-3 (except for attendants, servants, or personal employees of accredited officials), G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, NATO-1, NATO-2, NATO-3, NATO-4, NATO-5, or NATO-6 visas; and (v) certain Taiwan officials who hold E-1 visas or members of their immediate family who hold E-1 visas.



CBP will continue to work with our Federal and international partners – as well as commercial carriers and the trade community – to ensure the security and facilitation of the immense volume of international air travelers and cargo. We will continue to collaborate to strengthen ongoing efforts to secure the aviation sector against terrorists and other threats, and promote safe and efficient international travel and trade to the United States.

Chairman Katko, Ranking Member Watson Coleman, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to answering your questions.

Last Updated: 10/06/2022
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