National Press Club

Napolitano says global aviation reform crucial to thwart terrorism

April 15, 2010 | By Lorna Aldrich |

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Reforming global aviation security is a clear and vital step in securing the United States against terrorism, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Her declaration comes in the wake of the Christmas 2009 incident in which a Nigerian attempted to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight. Since the incident, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has participated in aviation security summits in Spain, Mexico, Tokyo and Nigeria. The summits produced consensus for security agreements, Napolitano said at an April 15 luncheon at the National Press Club. An upcoming meeting will address security in the Middle East.

The ultimate plan is for a worldwide general assembly that will hopefully result in a revised global consensus, she said. DHS is working with the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN affiliate, on the initiative.

DHS is currently working to fix two problems that arose during the Christmas incident, Napolitano said. First, the suspect was not on the proper watch list, so he was not subjected to a secondary search. Secondly, security missed his non-metallic weapon.

Napolitano termed the incident a "stark reminder" that aviation continues to be a target. The new types of threats can be small, involving individuals who don't fit the usual profile of terrorists — such as women — and who carry powders, liquids and gels in difficult-to-find locations.

In her 15 months at DHS, Napolitano said there has been an increase in the number of U.S. citizens who go online or travel abroad to learn the tradecraft of terrorism.

DHS is using different types of equipment and more layers of security in order to improve safety. There are also slight variations in security protocols at every airport, so that the system is unpredictable to potential terrorists, she said. By the end of the year, there will be more explosives detection devices and approximately 1,000 advanced imaging machines in place.

Despite these steps, "there is no guarantee that somewhere, somehow, someone will successfully destroy an airplane or use it as a weapon, "Napolitano said, though she added that every conceivable step is being taken, both domestically and internationally.

Napolitano acknowledged that misidentification of passengers due to similar names on a watch list is a "real problem." She vowed to improve the situation.

Aviation is a key economic engine and critical to tourism and connections among families, but DHS has to be careful to balance security against the need to safeguard trade and civil liberties, Napolitano said.

"The goal is to protect Americans while we protect American values," she said.

She sidestepped a question about the Supreme Court by saying a good nominee would be "whomever the president appoints." Napolitano is among those said to be in consideration to fill the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.