Details have emerged of how Pakistan-born Faisal Shahzad, who is suspected of plotting to bomb New York City’s Times Square, was arrested while trying to leave the US. Shahzad was allowed onto a Dubai-bound plane at JFK Airport on Monday, despite being on a no-fly list. It was only when customs agents checked passenger names 30 minutes before take-off that he was noticed and arrested. Officials say Shahzad admits his role in Saturday’s failed attack and now faces terrorism and explosives charges. The World’s Matthew Bell reports on changes being made to the way no-fly lists work.
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MARCO WERMAN: As we mentioned earlier, suspect Faisal Shahzad has reportedly admitted he’s the would-be bomber in the Times Square case. But officials stress they’re still trying to verify his story. Meanwhile, another question looms large over the investigation, how was Faisal Shahzad able to board a plane leaving the country when his name was on the government’s no fly list? Today the U.S. government announced some changes to the way the no fly lists work, but as The World’s Matthew Bell reports, some suggest that’s not enough.
MATTHEW BELL: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked during a news conference yesterday, how could the prime suspect in a major terrorism investigation, whose name had just been added to a no fly list, be allowed to get on a plane headed for Pakistan by way of Dubai? Bloomberg pointed out that its federal authorities, not New York City Police who manage the government’s no fly lists.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: I just don’t want to speculate how that happened. Clearly, the guy was on the plane and shouldn’t have been.
BELL: In response to what looked like a near escape, Washington tightened its no fly list procedures today. The airlines are now required to check the names on government no fly lists within two hours of being notified of important changes. Previously they had 24 hours to make sure that any new names on the government list didn’t match up with names of ticket holders. For example, Faisal Shahzad’s name was added to the banned list on Monday morning, but later that day he was able to buy a one way ticket, with cash, to South Asia, then go through security and get on the plane. The system seems to have failed and the changes announced today are aimed at fixing the problem, but that’s not reassuring at all to Michael Greenberger. He directs the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. Greenberger says the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt was also followed by promises to fix the system of passenger screening and it never happened.
MICHAEL GREENBERGER: We were assured the system was fixed. This self-evidently demonstrates the system isn’t fixed and its small comfort to the American people that somebody is under surveillance, has now admitted to his guilt in this matter, and could have gotten onto that plane. It’s a sign of a weak and failing system.
BELL: Others see the changes announced today as better than nothing.
JUAN ZARATE: It’s a helpful change I guess. But it still is, if the system relies on the airlines themselves to be diligent.
BELL: And that’s a problem, says Juan Karate. He’s a counter-terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ultimately, he says, the government and not the airlines should have more direct control over checking no fly lists. But he adds that the problem is deeper than that.
ZARATE: The real vulnerability in a system like this is that you’ve got a system that relies on the identification of individuals via name and assumes that they’re going to be using their name and their proper identification. You’ve got a problem, though, with people using false documents, false identities. In those instances, a watch list, a no fly list that’s a name based system is only as good as the integrity of the names.
BELL: The Transportation Security Administration is making changes with a new system called Secure Flight. Under that program the TSA, and not the airlines, would be responsible for checking names on no fly lists against passenger manifests. It should be completed by the end of the year, but here’s another problem; despite all the attention on airline security in recent months, there’s still no permanent Director at the TSA. The position has been vacant since January 2009 thank in part, to political fighting between the Obama administration and Congress. For The World, I’m Matthew Bell.
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