Monday, September 10, 2012

Spies and the Airport Screening Machine

US works out a free ride for its spooks

I have always fancied having a smorgasbord of passports, each bearing a different name, country of citizenship and photo -- just like the spies as we know them, or at least as we understand them from spy fiction and movies like James Bond and CIA agent Jason Bourne in the Bourne Trilogy movies.

However, airport security checks and immigration clearance must be a nightmare for real spies, undercover agents and intelligence officials these days as governments, increasingly wary of the growing sophistication of terrorists, have invented new technologies to try to detect them. Hence the increased tight security measures at airports over the world have created lots of inconvenience for the intelligence community. And the pseudo passports probably don't even work, given the facial recognition checks on top of the fingerprint hassles that have become commonplace at immigration checkpoints across the globe.

The spymasters know and they care, and they set out to do something about it.

So in late July, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) – the agency within the US Department of Homeland Security that exercises authority over the security of the traveling public in America – reportedly put procedures in place to allow the employees of three US intelligence agencies to pass un-scrutinized through airport security checks with convenience by joining its' “pre-check” program, known as the TSA Pre

"It is a voluntary program. So, if for example you have a NOC (a "non-official cover” -- a euphemism for a spy without any open connection to the government) who doesn't want to be identified in any way, it's optional," TSA chief John Pistole was reported as saying.

The reports and the TSA homepage didn’t mention the names of these three agencies or the number of intelligence agents approved under the program - which is “seeing exponential growth in participation,” according to the TSA homepage.

So far, this program has approved 2 million people with some 800,000 waiting for the green light. Now I am very curious: who are these people?

The program allows passengers to volunteer information about themselves prior to traveling domestically to expedite their checkpoint screening at participating airports. Eligible passengers include US citizens of frequent traveler programs on participating airlines and current members of the US Customs and Border Protection program.

To sign up for this program, one needs to first apply online and an interview will follow whereby a US Customs and Border Protection officer will “ask you questions, take your photo, and collect biometric information.” And the applicants must provide copies of their identification such as passport, driver's license and ID card.

Given the interminable lines in the United States especially, the demands to shed belts, shoes and liquid containers of all but minuscule amounts, how many ordinary citizens, including those frequent travelers and globe-trotting businessmen, would find such a program appealing given the reward of subsequent expedited airport clearance? Consider also the increasing attempts by governments worldwide these days to broaden their scope and ability to eavesdrop, wire-tap and spook on the public within and sometimes even outside their territories – national security concerns and terrorism threats are often cited as justifications.

On the other hand, there is no way to guarantee a person checked and approved under this program wouldn’t convert to terrorism later. The government should have realized that. So one cannot help but wonder if this is actually a deliberate trap to put more people under close surveillance – by conveniently collecting their authentic and updated data as starters.

Barring these concerns will offer no comfort: the issue then is, how many of these two million approved individuals are actually from the intelligence agencies? In a recent column, I wrote about the newest and 17th intelligence agency in the US designed specifically to target China – Prior to that, the US already boasted 16 intelligence agencies spread across the armed services, defense, homeland security, justice and state departments.

This new Defense Clandestine Service, approved by the Pentagon in late April, will be recruiting spies from the US Defense Intelligence Agency to work undercover in the guise of businessmen. But in reality, they will actually be running covert operations abroad, including China, where there are perceived long-term threats to US national interests.

I had a chat with two former intelligence agents who had previously worked for their respective government intelligence agencies with relevant knowledge and experience in the areas of special agent and undercover assignments plus the use and administrative process on the issue of pseudo covers.

One of the two questioned the need for the program at all since those special agents would usually be issued with some kind of multiple “pseudo IDs” in the first place – ie. a real-life James Bond or George Smiley wouldn’t carry a passport bearing his name but rather a collection of passports from different countries with different names.

Certainly, it isn’t likely that the US has 2 million spies out there with the need for pseudo covers. In fact, not all employees of intelligence agencies actually work in the field on covert operations by any means. A high percentage of them work in the back room, either within the premises of those agencies or in some specially arranged front offices as analysts, cyberspace experts and various types of specialists and technicians. And there are also those involved in administration and management.

Among the small portion who are agents actually working in the field, only a small percentage will occasionally need a change of identity for operational duties.

There are fewer than 300 agents using pseudo covers among all of the intelligence and enforcement agencies in Hong Kong at any one time, according to one of these sources. That works out to 0.000043 percent of the territory’s 7.5 million population. How these spies beat airport screenings like facial recognition, fingerprint checks or even retinal checks will be another interesting issue.

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region.)Asia Sentinel

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