By Joseph Tanfani Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (AP) — Homeland Security officials said Wednesday they will order stricter passenger screening and other new security measures for all flights entering the United States but will not bar laptop computers in carry-on luggage as airlines and passenger groups had feared.
The new order will cover about 2,000 flights a day from 280 airports in 105 countries, a move that could make international flying even more onerous just as the busy summer travel season starts.
Security officials would not detail the new measures but said passengers headed to the United States will face more intensive screening at airports, and probably more security dogs. They gave no date for when the new procedures will start.
If carriers don’t implement the measures effectively, Homeland Security still may ban laptops, e-readers and other electronic devices larger than cellphones from cargo holds as well as passenger cabins.
The decision follows intelligence, reportedly gathered from Islamic State in Syria by Israeli spy services, suggesting a lethal new threat from bombs that could be concealed in digital devices and that could evade detection by airport screening devices.
In March, U.S. and British authorities banned laptops in cabins on flights from eight Muslim-majority countries in North Africa and the Middle East, saying terrorists were seeking “innovative methods” to bring down commercial jetliners.
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly told a security conference in Washington on Wednesday that the new security measures will be “both seen and unseen” and will be phased in over time.
He said they will include tougher screening, particularly of electronic devices, plus new technology and procedures to protect planes from so-called insider attacks by airline employees.
“It is time that we raise the global baseline of aviation security,” Kelly said. “We cannot play international whack-a-mole with every new threat.”
He said terrorists still see commercial aircraft as “the crown jewel target” for attacks, and that intelligence has shown renewed interest by terrorists to attack airlines.
Kelly told a House committee several weeks ago that the department was considering extending the laptop ban to 71 more airports overseas.
But Kelly ultimately decided to tighten screening across the board, instead of focusing on laptops or “chasing after each item” that might be used to bring down a jetliner, senior Homeland Security officials said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters, said Kelly worked with airlines to find ways to improve screening without unduly inconveniencing passengers.
“Intensive doesn’t always mean slower,” said one official. “In some cases, airlines have been doing these things at international airports for some time.”
The officials said more security dogs, which sniff for explosives, may be used. And they said airlines and airports may institute pre-check programs like those approved by the Transportation Security Administration for use in U.S. airports.
The officials said restrictions on the first 10 airports will be lifted once airlines in those countries satisfy the new security protocols, officials said.
Airport authorities in the eight countries affected by that ban — Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — have been told about the new security measures and will put them in place so the ban is lifted, the officials said.
In recent weeks, Kelly and his aides have huddled with their counterparts overseas, as well as with representative of major airlines, to discuss whether to expand the ban around the globe.
Airlines protested that a laptop ban would inconvenience passengers and not remove the threat. Aviation experts and European security officials warned that putting laptops in cargo holds would pose other dangers because the lithium batteries could start fires.
In 1988, a bomb hidden in a radio cassette player exploded aboard a Pan Am jet flying over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew. The plot was blamed on then-Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
In 2010, powerful bombs hidden in printer ink cartridges were found aboard two cargo jets headed from Yemen to Chicago. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula later claimed responsibility for the plot.
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