US gov't adding air security 'enhancements' amid crash probe

Posted at 5:06 PM, Nov 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-06 20:16:52-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Homeland Security Department announced Friday a series of new security efforts aimed at international airports in the wake of the crash of a Russian jetliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said the latest security protocols will focus on commercial flights bound for the United States from certain overseas airports in the region. He did not say which airports will be affected.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the new protocols apply to fewer than 10 overseas airports in "the region in which the Sinai Peninsula is located." He said the affected airports already have cooperative relationships with the United States.

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The new security procedures will include expanded security screening of items put on commercial jets, airport assessments and offers of security assistance for certain airports.

Russian carrier Metrojet's Airbus A321-200 crashed shortly after takeoff from the Sharm el-Sheikh airport in Egypt on Saturday, killing all 224 people on board. There are no direct flights from that airport to the United States.

Though the investigation is ongoing, President Barack Obama has said the U.S. is taking "very seriously" the possibility that a bomb caused the crash.

"These measures are not being taken in response to a specific threat to the homeland but it is the prudent exercise of an abundance of caution given the information that U.S. officials have learned about this airline disaster in the Sinai Peninsula," Earnest said Friday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he has grounded all British flights to and from the Sinai Peninsula because of "intelligence and information" that points to a bomb as the probable cause of the crash.

On Friday, Russia announced that it will suspend all flights to Egypt until security is improved at its airports.

The former head of the Transportation Security Administration, John Pistole, said there is no formal security role for the U.S. government at foreign airports that don't have direct flights to the United States, such as the one in Sharm el-Sheikh. For the 275 airports that do serve as the last point of departure before landing in an American city, the government takes a risk-based approach to security that includes evaluating the origins of so-called feeder flights.

Michael Balboni, a security expert and former deputy secretary for public safety for New York state, said there are significant differences in the scrutiny of airport workers at overseas airports than in the United States.

One of those gaps, Pistole said, was the lack of a terrorist watch list in many countries that leaves many local airport authorities and foreign governments to rely on criminal background checks and other information on a routine basis to root out potential security threats.

In the wake of the downing of the Russian flight, Balboni said, many of those gaps are likely to gain renewed attention.

"Everything needs a refresh," Balboni said. "Security is never a destination, it's a journey. You have to change it up, you have to refresh it."