The Department of Homeland Security stopped more than 22,000 "high-risk" travelers from entering the United States in 2015, but officials remain uncertain about how effective these security screening methods are, opening the possibility that risky individuals such as terrorists are still being approved for entry into America, according to a new government report highlighting these flaws.
More than 8,100 "known or suspected terrorists, or individuals with connections to known or suspected terrorists, attempted to apply for travel to the United States or board U.S.-bound flights" in 2015, according to the report, which chides U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for failing to determine how effective its current screening methods are.
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The report, authored by the Government Accountability Office, details potential flaws in CBP's pre-flight screening methods and recommends the agency make a greater effort to measure the effectiveness of its pre-departure investigative process.
Officials noted that CBP's process has become increasingly critical as a greater number of foreign terrorists and fighters attempt to fly into the United States and exploit security gaps in the agency's methods. Effective security screening will become even more difficult as the CPB works to expand pre-clearance programs at foreign airports, according to the report, which is a public version of a restricted report originally published late last year.
"Recent events have highlighted the increased threat of one group of high-risk individuals, namely foreign fighters—individuals who leave home, travel abroad to terrorist safe havens, and join or assist violent extremist groups," the report states. "In February 2016, the Director of National Intelligence reported that more than 36,500 foreign fighters—including more than 6,600 from Western countries—had traveled to Syria to train with, support, or join extremist groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)."
U.S. authorities detected more than 22,000 "high risk air travelers" in fiscal year 2015, out of the more than 104 million U.S.-bound air travelers in that period.
"CBP data show that it identified and interdicted over 22,000 high-risk air travelers in fiscal year 2015 through its pre-departure programs," according to statistics provided in the report. "CBP officers at Preclearance locations determined that 10,648 of the approximately 16 million air travelers seeking admission to the United States through such locations were inadmissible. Similarly, CBP … made 11,589 no-board recommendations to air carriers for the approximately 88 million air travelers bound for the United States from such locations."
While CBP has demonstrated an ability to interdict potential terrorists and other high-risk travels, it has failed to determine how effective it has been.
"While CBP's pre-departure programs have helped identify and interdict high-risk travelers, CBP has not fully evaluated the overall effectiveness of these programs using performance measures and baselines," the report states.
"CBP tracks some data, such as the number of travelers deemed inadmissible, but has not set baselines to determine if pre-departure programs are achieving goals, consistent with best practices for performance measurement," according to the report.
"By developing and implementing a system of performance measures and baselines, CBP would be better positioned to assess if the programs are achieving their goals," according to GAO recommendations.
GAO investigators visited nine foreign airports and one domestic airport from May 2015 through September 2015 in order to observe CBP officers in action.
The agency is working on plans to expand pre-departure and pre-clearance programs at various airports, though the efforts have been moving more slowly than expected.
GAO officials recommend "that CBP develop and implement a system of performance measures and baselines to evaluate the effectiveness of its pre-departure programs and assess whether the programs are achieving their stated goals," according to the report, which notes that "CBP concurred with the recommendation and identified planned actions to address the recommendation."