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Why strong international partnerships create the most secure US borders

Submitted by on 12 Apr 2018 – 17:07

President Trump has promised to make the nation safer by protecting our borders. This endeavour is more complex than attempting to seal off entry with a wall or blanketly banning entire countries from boarding planes to the US. In reality, high-risk individuals attempting to travel to and harm the US 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 US intelligence and law enforcement agencies with greater access to US-bound traveller data.

How vetting works

The vetting of air passengers involves collecting and analysing multiple data points on individuals including biographic and biometric data, travel patterns and other pieces of information synthesised with open source and classified intelligence. Information is analysed 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 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, roles and jurisdictions of their intelligence and enforcement agencies differently from US counterparts.

Differing institutional structures and competing political perspectives can be further exacerbated when engaging regionally or with multilateral organisations, such as the European Union. As a key partner in the fight against terrorism, and hub for many global airlines, the European Union stands as a strategic US partner in exploiting travel as a means to identify international bad actors. Therefore, maintaining these agreements and the political will that supports their practical functioning requires tact and diplomacy.

Rather than risk alienating key allies with whom the US has traditionally relied upon for US-bound traveller data and other critical intelligence, a more effective approach for the president to take would be strengthening these partnerships to further induce cooperative information-sharing.

Managing partnerships

While the president has, at 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 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 US four-star General, former Director of the US National Security Agency, and former Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, stated that the proposed ban makes Americans “less safe” by alienating current and future intelligence sources in the Middle East. If such posturing continues it would jeopardize US efforts to gain intelligence from sources which have typically been cooperative with the US, but who may now react 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 US receives from other governments can always be refined and improved through cooperation and collaboration rather than divisiveness.

Smart technology investments

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

Moving forward

Fortunately, there are highly capable officials at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), US CBP, the FBI, the US Intelligence Community and other 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 US underlying partnerships matter. Strained relationships at a head of state level can have a trickledown effect through their respective government agencies and may disrupt the cooperative two-way flow of information vital to US and global security.

The safety of Americans cannot be solely focused on border walls and overly simplified ’vetting’ of travellers. 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 of CT Strategies, a consulting firm based in Washington DC, which provides strategic services in border management and supply chain security in the US and around the world.