WASHINGTON (AP) — The Transportation Security Administration needed an exemption from new Obama administration rules restricting racial profiling by the government so the TSA could target travelers for extra scrutiny based on their nationality and gender, the head of the agency said Tuesday.
The TSA more closely scrutinizes travelers from Syria, Yemen and other nations that are home to individuals and groups that may be plotting to sneak a bomb on board an airliner, John Pistole, the agency's administrator, said in an interview.
"It's not to use race to profile anybody, but it's a way to identify people — particularly people flying internationally to the U.S.," Pistole said. "So somebody is, say, a Syrian citizen, that's the issue. So it's more nationality than race from our perspective."
Last week, the Justice Department issued guidelines forbidding federal law enforcement agencies from profiling on the basis of religion, national origin and other characteristics. Profiling based on race was already prohibited.
TSA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies within the Homeland Security Department were exempted from the new guidelines after an internal administration debate.
Just as it may be relevant to the Customs and Border Protection's mission that someone trying to enter the U.S. is a Mexican, Honduran or El Salvadoran citizen, it may also be relevant to the TSA whether an airline passenger is "Syrian or Yemeni or whatever ... based on what we know about the current intelligence," Pistole said.
This Christmas is the 5th anniversary of the failed "underwear bomber" plot that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula cooked up to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The 2009 incident marked a turning point at TSA, shifting the agency's focus to search for non-metallic bombs hidden by terrorists on their bodies.
However, Pistole said he doesn't see any reason for extra caution this holiday. Terrorists are more interested in "windows of opportunity" and not especially focused on anniversaries, he said.
FBI Director James Comey also said recently that he sees no special reason for concern that air travelers may be targeted by terrorists this holiday season.
"There's nothing about this year's holiday season that makes it more of a focus than it was over the summer or something like that," he said.
Pistole is stepping down at the end of this month as the head of the TSA after 4 1/2 turbulent years in which the agency sought to balance passenger privacy against safety and stay a step ahead of terrorists looking for cunning new ways to smuggle bombs aboard planes.
During Pistole's tenure, the TSA shifted from one-size-fits-all screening procedures to a risk-based system that divides travelers into three groups: No known risk, uncertain risk and known risk. Most people fall into the no-known-risk category, allowing the agency to shift them into expedited screening lines. As a result, wait times are down and traveler complaints have dropped 25 percent since 2012.
A record number of travelers flew this Thanksgiving holiday period. More than 12.5 million passengers were screened between Nov. 26 and Dec. 2, a 1.3 percent increase from 2013, according to the TSA. And nearly half of them received expedited screening, with the wait time in line less than 20 minutes for all but less than 1 percent of passengers.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.
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