Personal traits will be used to screen U.S.-bound air passengers

The Obama administration will announce Friday a new screening system for flights to the United States under which passengers who fit an intelligence profile of potential terrorists will be searched before boarding their planes, a senior administration official said.

The procedures, which have been approved by President Obama, are aimed at preventing another attack like the one attempted by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspected of ties to Al Qaeda who allegedly tried to blow up an airliner Christmas Day with a bomb hidden in his underwear, the official said.

After that attempt, the administration began mandatory screening of airline passengers from 14 high-risk countries, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

Under the new system, passengers on flights from all countries could be subject to special screening before boarding if they have personal characteristics that match the latest intelligence information about potential attackers, the senior official said.

“We believe it is a much more effective system” that is “tailored to optimize our ability to interdict would-be terrorists,” said the official, who requested anonymity in describing the plan.

Even U.S. citizens traveling to the United States from abroad would be subject to special screening if they matched certain characteristics, the official said.

Administration officials said the system would provide greater fairness than the current method.

They said it would not amount to improper profiling because it would rely on specific and frequently updated intelligence and involve more countries than the current 14.

The new plan is designed to catch terrorism suspects about whom the U.S. may know bits of information but not full names or other identifying data that would lead to their names being placed on a no-fly list.

In many cases, the U.S. might learn of a possible attack by someone about whom it has only fragmentary information -- a partial name, nationality, certain facial features or details about recent travel.

Such information will be forwarded to airlines and foreign governments by the Department of Homeland Security as it is received and will be used to guide them in deciding which travelers to subject to special screening, the official said.

In the case of Abdulmutallab, U.S. intelligence had received communication intercepts months before the Christmas Day attempt about a suspected plot involving a Nigerian, as well as a partial name.

The breakdown occurred because intelligence officials failed to match that information with a tip they received from Abdulmutallab’s father that his son may have joined a radical Islamist movement.

Because of the failure to connect the available information, Abdulmutallab’s name was placed in a database of possible extremists but not on the no-fly list, which contains about 4,000 names, or on a terrorism watch “selectee” list, which comprises fewer than 20,000.

The new system seeks to eliminate this vulnerability by ensuring that even without a name, airlines will receive information that will enable them to select passengers for additional screening, the official said. But he did not say that the new system necessarily would have stopped Abdulmutallab.

“I like to think it would have increased our chances to stop” him, the senior official said.

Even if the Nigerian had been pulled aside, security screeners still would have had to detect the bomb in his underwear.

“We like to think they would have detected the IED,” he said, using an abbreviation for improvised explosive device. Techniques for detecting hidden bombs, weapons or other devices would not change under the new system.

The current practice of searching all passengers from any of 14 countries is inconvenient and untargeted, the officials said.

The new system, although it applies to many more countries, will result in “a significant reduction” in the number of passengers receiving special pre-boarding scrutiny than the thousands currently searched each day, the senior official estimated.

The types of information provided to airlines would be broad and varied, officials said. In some cases, decisions about who is selected for screening would be made automatically by matching the intelligence data against information in databases about passengers.

For example, if the U.S. received information about countries a terrorism suspect had visited, all passengers who had visited those countries could be pulled aside, the officials said.

In other cases, the decision about whom to search will hinge on the discretion or vigilance of those dealing with the passengers.

For example, if told to look for passengers with particular facial characteristics, it would be up to screeners or airline personnel to designate a passenger for special screening, the official said.

U.S. officials would not describe all the categories of information that would be included under the new procedures. Doing so would alert potential attackers to ways of defeating the system, they said.