Napolitano: Aviation security tops DHS priority list

There is unprecedented international agreement about the need for global airline security standards, and the Homeland Security Department will take a leading role in the effort to improve aviation security worldwide, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Tuesday.

Napolitano met with her European counterparts in Spain and Switzerland last week, along with representatives from 20 airlines and members of the International Air Transport Association.

The talks centered on information sharing, passenger vetting, screening technology and global standards, she said.

"I was gratified to see there exists a broad consensus working on these four areas among my European counterparts and their sense of urgency to take immediate action to strengthen security measures and identify barriers to progress," Napolitano said.

The talks were the first in a series of meetings that will be led by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations body that aims to ensure secure and sustainable civil aviation among member states.

Aviation security clearly is a top concern, not just domestically, but internationally as well. Last week both Britain and India raised their own domestic terror alert levels, reportedly because of intelligence suggesting threats to their aviation sectors.

DHS also will take steps to improve aviation security in the United States during the next several months by installing better screening technology, strengthening law enforcement and deploying canine teams to airports across the country. In addition, Homeland Security is working with the Energy Department to explore future technologies to improve screening.

Napolitano was criticized early in her tenure at Homeland Security for downplaying the threat of terrorism and instead referring to "man-caused disasters." She further alienated critics when she initially declared that "the system worked" after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Detroit-bound aircraft in Amsterdam on Christmas Day with explosives packed in his underwear. The alleged al-Qaeda operative, now in federal custody facing charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, was subdued by fellow passengers when he tried to set off the explosives. A review ordered by President Obama showed that systemic failures across government contributed to the failure to avert the attempted attack.

On Tuesday, Napolitano seemed to address the criticism head-on: "Counterterrorism remains our top priority," she said. "Our system should never have allowed that to happen," she added, referring to Abdulmutallab's attempted attack.

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