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US Considers Stationing Inspectors at Overseas Airports - 2004-03-01

The United States is considering plans to place American security agents at airports in Europe and Asia to better screen passengers before they get on planes bound for the United States. The move is intended to prevent another terrorist attack by stopping potential terrorists before they arrive in America. The idea may not be welcomed by everyone.

Under this plan, American inspectors would have the authority to screen passengers at some of Europe's largest airports, including London's Heathrow, Frankfurt airport in Germany and Japan's Narita, before they board U.S.-bound airliners.

At a time when U.S. intelligence officials say al-Qaida is still working to attack the United States, U.S. Customs chief Robert Bonner tells VOA the goal would be better detection of phony passports and other travel documents, something he says security officials at foreign airports are less able to spot.

"The reality is they just don't have the training to be able to detect a fraudulent or counterfeit passport in a way that trained immigration inspectors [of] U.S. Customs and Border Protection," he said.

Since Christmas, more than a dozen trans-Atlantic flights have been canceled because of concerns about terrorism, including suspicions about people thought to be holding reservations.

If other countries agree to go along with it, this stepped-up passenger screening would amount to extending the reach of the U.S. government to foreign soil in the name of homeland security. U.S. Customs agents have been operating in Canada for years but some European governments may not welcome this proposed plan.

"Measures for this are already in place at European airports," said in Brussels, James Bradbury of the Airports Council International, a trade industry group. He is not sure why the United States thinks this added security is needed in Europe. "Do they just want to reassure U.S. passengers by having an American presence abroad or are they saying they don't have confidence in European standards of security?"

The plan must still be given final approval in the United States. But Customs Commissioner Bonner says he's encountered no European resistance to it so far. "Other nations are already doing this including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada," he said.

The stepped up passenger inspection program is being modeled on an existing one in which U.S. agents stationed on foreign soil inspect cargo bound for the United States before it leaves port.