DHS Plans to Catch Only One in Four Travelers Committing ‘Major’ Criminal Violations While Entering U.S. on International Fights in 2010
January 4, 2010 - 1:39 AMDocuments produced by the Department of Homeland Security indicate that in fiscal 2010 the department is planning to catch only 26 percent of travelers committing major violations of law while entering the United States on international flights.
DHS documents also indicate that the department believes it will fail to screen against law enforcement databases 15 percent of travelers entering the United States in 2010 through all official ports of entry.
In fiscal 2008, according to DHS, the department caught only 25 percent of those committing “major violations” while entering the U.S. on international flights. It also planned to catch only 25% in fiscal 2009, which ended on Sept. 30. For fiscal 2010, which began on Oct. 1, DHS set it sites slightly higher, planning to catch 26 percent of “major” violators entering the U.S. on international flights while letting 74 percent get away.
DHS each year calculates what it calls the “air passenger apprehension rate for major violations.” This apprehension rate is used as one measure of whether the department is achieving its goal to “improve the targeting, screening, and apprehension of high-risk international cargo and travelers to prevent terrorist attacks, while providing processes to facilitate the flow of safe and legitimate trade and travel.”
The “major violations” that DHS believes 74 percent of perpetrators will get away with when entering the U.S. by air in 2010, according to a 3,493-page document the department presented to Congress to justify its annual budget, involve “serious criminal activity, including possession of narcotics, smuggling of prohibited products, human smuggling, weapons possession, fraudulent U.S. documents, and other offenses serious enough to result in arrest.”
DHS determines the percentage of “major” violators it catches entering the United States at international airports by subjecting a random sampling of passengers to intensified scrutiny designed to detect any offense they might be committing. “The sample rate is used to estimate the ‘expected’ number of major violations in the general population,” DHS explained in its budget justification. “The major violations found during the regular primary inspection process are then compared to the ‘expected’ number to compute the apprehension rate for major violations among air passengers traveling to the U.S.”
The justification for its 2010 budget that DHS presented to Congress said the department had apprehended 40.3 percent of those committing “major violations” entering the United States on international flights in fiscal 2007, but that the number dropped to only 25 percent in fiscal 2008. For fiscal 2009, the document said, the department set a goal of apprehending 25 percent again, and then raised the goal to 26 percent for fiscal 2010.
An annual performance review updated by DHS in May also said the department caught only 25% of those committing “major violations” while entering the U.S. by air in fiscal 2008 and that the department had set goals of apprehending 25 percent of such violators in 2009 and 26 percent in 2010.
A statement provided to CNSNews.com on September 11, 2009 by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency responsible for screening international travelers entering the United States, said “the vast majority of passenger violations that fall into the ‘major violations’ category are narcotics violations.”
Another measure that DHS uses to determine whether it is achieving its goal of preventing terrorist attacks is called the “percent of individuals screened against law enforcement databases for entry into the United States.” The 3,493-page report DHS provided to Congress to justify its 2010 budget said, “This measure identifies the percent of individuals arriving at the ports of entry who have their names and other identification information checked against electronic law enforcement databases.”
According to the document, the department screened only 73.5% of international travelers arriving at all U.S. ports of entry in 2008, and set goals of screening 80 percent in fiscal 2009 and 85 percent in fiscal 2010.
In its annual financial report published on Nov. 16, DHS said it had done law-enforcement database screening on 83.4% of travelers entering the U.S. at official ports of entry in fiscal 2009 and was still planning to screen 85 percent in fiscal 2010—leaving 15 percent of travelers entering the United States unscreened.
A Homeland Security Department official, who spoke to CNSNews.com last week on the condition that his name not be used, said CBP screens 100 percent of international travelers entering the United States at international airports but is not as efficient in screening international travelers entering the country at land ports of entry.
Nonetheless, DHS officials told CNSNews.com that some individuals whose names are discovered on law enforcement databases before they board international flights to the United States are allowed to board the planes and fly to the United States. After they arrive, they are subjected to heightened scrutiny, sometimes being denied final entry into the country by CBP. DHS said individuals dealt with in this way are not included in its “air passenger apprehension rate”
“CBP officials are alerted to all travelers on the terrorist watch list, including those with outstanding criminal warrants, or criminal histories,” CBP told CNSNews.com in the September statement. “This screening is done prior to arrival at the U.S. port of entry. On arrival, such travelers are intercepted and their cases are handled immediately, removing them from the pool of passengers included in the air apprehension rate measure. This means that virtually all potential terrorists and criminal violators are interdicted in our first layer of enforcement, before the apprehension rate is determined.”
A Homeland Security Department official explained last week that international passengers who appear on the “No Fly” list are not allowed to board planes bound for the United States, but that officials at CBP’s National Targeting Center make judgment calls about whether other individuals “flagged” by the agency’s screening system will be permitted to board U.S. bound flights. The screening system checks names of passengers against multiple databases.
The official said that when passengers check-in for U.S. bound flights at foreign airports their names are automatically run against the “No Fly” list which is provided to the airlines. Then, depending on the system the airline is using, the passenger’s name is either instantly transmitted at check-in to CBP’s National Targeting Center or the airline provides CBP with a manifest of all passenger’s on a U.S.-bound flight either 60 minutes or 30 minutes before departure. CBP checks the names by computer and examines any that its system flags to determine whether the person in question should be allowed on the flight.
“The no-fly list is exactly that. They don’t get on a plane,” the DHS official said. “Everyone else that is on that plane and headed for the states, we get that information before the plane pushes back, we are starting our vetting against all these databases and they have different levels of complexity, depending on whose lists they are. So everyone is being vetted against those and that allows us to identify individuals that are coming to the United States that are interest to us for further screening.”
The DHS official stressed that passengers who are not on the “No Fly” list but appear on other databases that trigger more extensive screening after the passenger arrives at a U.S. airport are “not known terrorists” but have aroused the interest of the U.S. government for other reasons. “The individuals we are looking at are not known terrorists. They are not considered a threat to the country,” said the official. But because some law enforcement or federal agency is interested in them, CBP is “made aware of it so that we can talk to them when they do enter the United States.”
Some passengers may be flagged for fairly minor matters, the DHS official said. “I am from Michigan and I have a warrant for failure to appear and that shows up,” said the official, giving a hypothetical. “I am going to get talked to when I enter the United States because there is a law enforcement agency out there that has an interest in me. I am not a threat to national security. I am not on a no-fly list.”
When asked if people on the “No Fly” list were the only travelers automatically excluded from boarding international flights to the United States, the DHS official said travelers with invalid visas are also supposed to be automatically excluded from boarding flights to the United States.
The DHS official also said one reason the department sometimes waits until a passenger flagged by their screening system arrives in the United States before dealing with them is because the department has few resources and no jurisdiction in foreign countries.
“Most of our resources are at our ports of entry. That is where our officers have the authority and the ability to deal with these individuals,” said the official. “Just because someone is trying to get on a flight in a foreign country and they may have a past criminal history that is of interest, we have no authority to act on that at that time.”
The first line of defense in preventing bad actors from boarding planes to come to United States from foreign countries is the State Department, which is responsible for screening would-be travelers who apply for visas.
When CNSNews.com asked CBP in September why DHS’s annual performance report set a goal of apprehending only 26% of those committing “major violations” while entering the United States by air, CBP provided CNSNews.com with a written statement that said the apprehension rate is low because the majority of major violators are smuggling small amounts of drugs that are difficult to detect.
“CBP Officers are always attempting to catch 100% of the major violations occurring at the ports of entry,” said the statement. “This is extremely difficult to do since most major violations at the ports of entry are narcotics violations and narcotics smugglers are very inventive at finding new ways to hide contraband.”
The statement said the DHS conducts a “thorough physical inspection” of a random sampling of passengers to estimate the rate of major violations being committed by those arriving at U.S. international airports.
“We track the ‘results’ for this measure by taking a true random sampling of arriving passengers and conducting a thorough physical inspection of them, their luggage, and travel documents to identify all violations in our sample,” said the statement. “This information is used to develop a statistically valid estimate of the number of violations occurring in the group of travelers arriving at the port of entry. We then compare the violations we actually find to this estimate to determine the overall apprehension rate.”
Below is CBP’s September 11, 2009 statement in response to CNSNews.com’s inquiry about why the agency set a goal of catching 26 percent of those committing “major violations” while entering the U.S. by air in fiscal 2010:
“Air Apprehension Rate Performance Measure response:
“The Air Apprehension Rate performance measure, as described in the DHS Annual Performance Report, is easily misunderstood and should not be used to make an assessment of our success at stopping terrorists from entering the country. In the air environment, all airline manifest information is captured in the Advance Passenger Information System and air passengers are screened against the major law enforcement databases using the Automated Targeting System prior to their arrival. CBP officials are alerted to all travelers on the terrorist watchlist, including those with outstanding criminal warrants, or criminal histories. This screening is done prior to arrival at the U.S. port of entry. On arrival, such travelers are intercepted and their cases are handled immediately, removing them from the pool of passengers included in the air apprehension rate measure. This means that virtually all potential terrorists and criminal violators are interdicted in our first layer of enforcement, before the apprehension rate is determined.
“Furthermore, the vast majority of passenger violations that fall into the ‘major violations’ category are narcotics violations. Although this measure encompasses most violations that result in arrest at the ports of entry, the reality is that most of these violations result from an attempt to smuggle a relatively small amount of narcotics that are easily concealed and difficult for CBP Officers to detect. The compliance program that is used as the basis for this measure results in a small group of randomly selected passengers undergoing a thorough physical examination that is highly successful at finding this hidden contraband. Because of how skewed the arriving passenger violations are towards narcotics, this performance measure is largely a measure of our success at interdicting narcotics, especially the relatively small amounts that the average traveler tries to smuggle into the country.
“The ‘targets’ for this measure are misleading. CBP Officers are always attempting to catch 100% of the major violations occurring at the ports of entry. This is extremely difficult to do since most major violations at the ports of entry are narcotics violations and narcotics smugglers are very inventive at finding new ways to hide contraband. The targets as specified are a forecast of what we are likely to find based on recent history.
“We track the ‘results’ for this measure by taking a true random sampling of arriving passengers and conducting a thorough physical inspection of them, their luggage, and travel documents to identify all violations in our sample. This information is used to develop a statistically valid estimate of the number of violations occurring in the group of travelers arriving at the port of entry. We then compare the violations we actually find to this estimate to determine the overall apprehension rate.
“The hand-held radiation screening devices are not used on passengers directly. They are typically used to inspect aircraft, vehicles, luggage, and packages, including suspected contraband.
“CBP strives to identify every violation at every port of entry, be it about terrorism, immigration, customs, criminality or agriculture.”