Securing US borders requires reliable information sharing

Securing US borders requires reliable information sharing
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President Trump has promised to make the nation safer by protecting our borders. This endeavor is more complex than attempting to seal off entry with a wall or banning entire countries from boarding planes to the U.S. In reality, high-risk individuals attempting to travel to and do harm to the U.S. can depart from anywhere and be of any nationality.

The solution to mitigate this risk is not to retreat from alliances, but rather to strengthen international relationships and information-sharing agreements with foreign partners that supply U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies with greater access to U.S.-bound traveler data.

Additionally, protecting the confidentiality of those data sources is essential to maintaining trust and enduring relationships with our allies. Compromising that trust risks eroding existing relationships and deterring new streams of intelligence at a time when information on threats in the international air travel environment or elsewhere is critical to protecting U.S. borders.


How vetting works

The vetting of air passengers involves the collection and analysis of multiple data points on individuals including biographic and biometric data, travel patterns, and other pieces of information synthesized with open source and classified intelligence. Information is analyzed prior to a passenger boarding a flight, and, if necessary, action is taken either before the passenger boards or upon arrival at their destination. Data exchanged with foreign border management authorities, along with coordination from the airline industry, are critical components of this process.

However, creating and maintaining passenger data and other information-sharing agreements can be a complicated and fragile process, even with some of our closest traditional allies. Different countries have varying perspectives on data privacy or varying federal structures that govern the legal authorities of their intelligence and enforcement agencies differently than U.S. counterparts.

Rather than risk alienating key allies with whom the U.S. has traditionally relied upon for U.S.-bound traveler data and other critical intelligence, a more effective approach for the President to take would be to strengthen these partnerships in a way that induces further cooperative information-sharing.

Managing strategic partnerships

While the President has, at certain moments during the first months of his term, taken a globally-minded approach to foreign affairs, the aggressive tone set through rhetoric and policy proposals during his campaign and early months of his Administration has alienated or pushed certain traditional allies away rather than embracing them.

Specifically regarding the President’s proposed travel ban of individuals from multiple Middle East countries; Michael Hayden, retired U.S. Air Force four-star General, former Director of the U.S. National Security Agency, and former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, stated that the proposed ban makes Americans “less safe” by alienating current and future intelligence sources in the Middle East1 . If such posturing were to continue it would jeopardize U.S. efforts to gain intelligence from sources which have typically been cooperative with the U.S., but who may now react more adversely.

Tactful outreach and strategic partnership formulation is particularly critical in a time when certain governments are already not sharing sufficient information. Furthermore, while the current vetting process is already a robust one, the type and quantity of information the U.S. receives from other governments can always be refined and improved through cooperation and collaboration rather than divisiveness.

Smart technology investments

While the U.S. Congress weighs the cost-benefit of expanding the U.S./Mexico border wall, they should also consider the technology needs of U.S. officials vetting international travelers at U.S. air and land ports of entry. To process the growing volume of air passengers and their associated data, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers, coordinating with other U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, require state-of-the-art automated systems, utilizing sophisticated risk assessment algorithms. Adequate appropriations for this technology must be kept up to date.

Moving forward

Fortunately, there are many highly capable officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. CBP, the FBI, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), and other U.S. agencies who will continue to leverage their institutional knowledge and experience in conducting risk management operations while collaborating with partners globally.

However, words matter, the way we talk about things matters, and U.S. underlying partnerships matter. Strained relationships or compromised trust at a Head of State level can have a trickle down effect through their respective government agencies and may disrupt the cooperative two-way flow of information vital to U.S. and global security.

The safety of Americans cannot be solely focused on border walls and overly-simplified “vetting” of travelers. The process is more complex and requires forward-thinking political leadership, a commitment to international partnerships, collaboration with industry, and the leveraging of smart technology tools.

Andrew Farrelly is a Co-Founder and Partner of Washington DC-based consulting firm, CT Strategies, which provides strategic services in border management and supply chain security in the U.S.and around the world. He is the former Director of Targeting Programs for the U.S. CBP National Targeting Center, and has served in several capacities related to mitigating risk in the international travel and trade environments.