The good news is U.S. airport traffic is returning to pre-9/11 levels. The bad news is, so are security priorities at international terminals, where some of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. illegally.
New internal memos I’ve obtained show the Homeland Security Department seems more worried about getting foreign travelers to their destinations on time than screening them for terror ties.
In fact, I’ve learned the department has formed a so-called Airport Wait Time working group, which met for the first time in December to come up with a national strategy to clock federal inspectors processing foreign travelers entering the U.S. at major international airports. Those who take too long are written up.
Airport immigration inspectors are our first line of defense against terrorists entering the country. They check fingerprints and photographs against terror watchlists and question suspicious foreign passengers.
Yet they are under new pressure to clear planes in response to complaints from airlines about security related delays.
“Flight times are now much more important than catching terrorists, drugs or illegals,” a Customs and Border Protection supervisor at a major international airport told me. “We are always pressured to clear passengers in under 60 minutes, no matter what—even though Congress lifted that mandate after 9/11.”
Indeed, Congress and the president supposedly did away with such passenger-processing deadlines under the USA Patriot Act to make sure antiterrorist screening is not rushed and no terrorists slip through the cracks.
The 60-minute clock starts ticking as soon as planes block at the gate, before international passengers even deplane, and keeps ticking as they walk from the plane to the inspections lines. To meet the new deadline, inspectors working large flights say they must rush through US-VISIT screening procedures, which were recently expanded to include Visa Waiver Program passengers from countries like Britain.
Making matters worse, they are plagued by chronic computer problems. Sometimes the national security system goes on the blink for hours at a time, and outages have been occurring almost on a daily basis, they say. Under such circumstances, some foreign passengers are admitted unscreened.
No matter, headquarters has other priorities—namely, keeping foreign travelers happy. In fact, a separate DHS memo distributed last year admonishes federal inspectors to “smile” more as part of a new campaign to make what it calls their foreign “customers” feel welcome.
In the new DHS memo, dated May 2, 2005, and titled “Airport Wait Times Reporting Requirement-Update,” CBP field directors are ordered to collect and report wait-time data to headquarters for review “on a daily basis.”
“Managers report primary and secondary [inspection] wait times for all of their commercial flights on a daily basis using a template developed by” the Office of Field Operations, says the two-page memo signed by CBP Executive Operations Director Patricia M. Duffy. “The template is designed to capture the average primary wait time and record information on all flights exceeding 60 minutes.”
Some officials complain the collection of data also distracts from what should be their main mission of screening out terrorists.
“Look at all the effort that goes into this!” one CBP official exclaimed. “What about catching bad guys?”
Even the memo from headquarters acknowledges that “this process is extremely labor intensive.”