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Since its emergence in the waning days of World War II, the international civil aviation system has served as an engine of progress and prosperity -- both in the United States and in many nations around the world. A 2008 study estimated that aviation contributes around 7.5 percent of all global GDP, or $3.5 trillion.
Indeed, aviation may be the lifeblood of global commerce. Every week, 2,500 commercial flights carrying 500,000 people land in the United States from Europe alone; a total of 2.2 billion passengers fly every year, with ten million businesspeople, students, and visitors boarding international flights each week.
But the international aviation system has its weak links, as illustrated by the attempted terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight on December 25, 2009.
Although that incident involved a U.S. plane flying into a U.S. city, it was an international terror plot that endangered individuals from at least 17 foreign countries. The alleged attacker, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was a Nigerian citizen educated in the United Kingdom. He received training in terrorist tactics in Yemen, purchased his ticket in Ghana, and flew from Nigeria to Amsterdam before departing for Detroit. In other words, the Christmas Day plot exploited the global aviation network -- and it underscored the reality that, despite decades of advances in screening and significant reforms following 9/11, the network still faces vulnerabilities.
Aviation security, much like other international security challenges, blurs the line between foreign and domestic. Because every airport offers a potential entry point into the global system, every nation faces the threat from gaps in aviation security throughout the world.
The international dimensions of the attempted terrorist attack on December 25 brought new urgency to the need for an international reform agenda. And over the last six months, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has worked with international partners on an unprecedented campaign to strengthen the international aviation system against the evolving threats posed by terrorism.
Since January, DHS -- working closely with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN body responsible for air transport -- has participated in five regional aviation-security summits on five continents, with broad participation from elected leaders, security ministers, and airline officials across Europe, the Western Hemisphere, the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, and the Middle East. At every stop, I have been struck by the shared commitment to strengthen this vital network. Indeed, each summit produced a historic joint declaration on a coordinated international agenda for aviation security.
Through this process, the international community has reached a remarkable consensus on four key elements for reform: developing and deploying new security technologies, strengthening aviation security measures and standards, enhancing information sharing, and coordinating international technical assistance.
DHS has also collaborated with U.S. and international airline and airport trade associations -- and with many airline CEOs -- that have voiced strong support for this coordinated international approach to enhancing aviation security.
The upcoming meeting of the ICAO General Assembly, to be held in Canada this autumn, presents the opportunity to turn this consensus for progress into a strong set of binding international standards that will fundamentally reshape international aviation security for the better.
More than a dozen nations have already joined the United States in strengthening the global aviation system by boosting their own aviation security budgets and accelerating the use of advanced imaging technologies, or AIT, at their largest airports.
Domestically, the United States has gone even further, deploying additional law enforcement officials, behavior detection officers, air marshals, and explosives-detection canine teams, among other measures. Indeed, President Barack Obama has prioritized speeding the deployment of AIT and continuing to increase the number of air marshals, canine teams, and explosives-detection devices at airports throughout the country.
And DHS has achieved a major aviation security milestone -- called for by the 9/11 Commission -- by assuming responsibility from the airlines for one hundred percent of terrorist-watch-list screening for all passengers on domestic and international flights on U.S. airlines. By the end of the year, DHS will also have responsibility for watch-list screening of flights by foreign carriers bound for the United States.
The United States has also implemented new enhanced security measures for all air carriers with international flights to the United States. These new measures utilize real-time, threat-based intelligence, along with multiple layers of security both seen and unseen, to better mitigate the evolving terrorist threats.
Finally, DHS continues to collaborate with the Department of Energy and its National Laboratories to leverage their expertise in order to accelerate the development of new, innovative aviation security technologies to counter the evolving threats.
Despite significant progress, some barriers remain. Among them is the persistent -- and unsupported -- notion that privacy and data protection standards in the United States and the European Union are incompatible. Although specific legal, political, and cultural differences do remain, the United States and its transatlantic partners share far more than what divides us.
Yet misperceptions about U.S. privacy and civil liberties protections persist, such as the erroneous belief that only U.S. citizens can obtain information that has been collected on them. As a result, several bilateral agreements that would improve information sharing -- including exchanges pertaining to criminal fingerprints and lost or stolen passports -- remain unsigned. And some EU officials are now looking to restrict one of the most powerful tools for identifying risks to the aviation system: the review of passenger data.
This data is a critical asset not just for the United States but for all nations who use it. In 2008, for example, DHS identified more than 1,800 travelers from around the world who warranted additional scrutiny because of potential ties to terrorism, crime, or other violations of U.S. law by analyzing Passenger Name Record (PNR) data -- the information that travelers provide to airlines when booking their flights. In 2009, one-third of all persons denied entry to the United States on terrorism grounds were turned away based on an analysis of their PNR.
Indeed, DHS analysis of passenger data played a critical role in the recent counterterrorism cases against Najibullah Zazi, who pled guilty to plotting to bomb New York subways; David Headley, who pled guilty for his role in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks; and Faisal Shahzad, suspect in the recent Times Square bombing attempt.
The United States and European states have been regularly and responsibly sharing personal information to combat transnational crime and terrorism for decades. And European airlines have provided PNR data to the United States under U.S. law since 2002 -- with no identified incidents of the U.S. government misusing that data.
The U.S. government is firmly committed to strong privacy protections that govern how it collects, stores, and shares information. At DHS, which houses the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Privacy Office are involved at the outset of the policymaking process, building rights and liberties protections into new security measures from the beginning -- not as an afterthought. Further, privacy protections are not only included but are central to every information-sharing agreement and program that DHS carries out with partner countries.
Stronger coordination with international allies will allow the United States to share information about terrorists and other dangerous individuals. This exchange will make all passengers safer. In a time of rapidly evolving threats from terrorism, it is necessary to move beyond the false notion that security and liberties are opposing values.
Citizens of all nations should feel safe whether they fly out of Brussels, Chicago, Nairobi, or Islamabad and have confidence that officials across the globe will have access to the right information at the right time to prevent and disrupt attacks.
The international community has forged a consensus around the need to cooperate on developing and deploying the next generation of screening technologies, to improve information sharing so we can keep terrorists off planes, and to modernize the aviation security standards on which we all depend.
Such measures would work to strengthen the system that remains critical to global commerce and travel and to ensure that an incident like the one last December does not happen again. All nations must share the responsibility for seizing this moment to safeguard the aviation system for the next century and beyond.