Why strong international partnerships create the most secure US borders

By: Andrew Farrelly

As published in Government Gazette Vol 1.


President Trump has promised to make the nation safer by protecting our borders.  This endeavor is more complex than attempting to seal off entry with a wall or blanketly banning entire countries from boarding planes to the U.S. In reality, high-risk individuals attempting to travel to and harm the U.S. can depart from anywhere and be of any nationality.

The solution to mitigate this risk is not to retreat from alliances, but rather through strengthening international relationships and information-sharing agreements with foreign partners that supply U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies with greater access to U.S.-bound traveler data.

How Vetting Works

The vetting of air passengers involves collecting and analyzing multiple data points on individuals including: biographic and biometric data, travel patterns, and other pieces of information synthesized with open source and classified intelligence. Information is analyzed 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 than U.S. counterparts.  

Differing institutional structures and competing political perspectives can be further exacerbated when engaging regionally or with multilateral organizations, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. has traditionally relied upon for U.S.-bound traveler 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 U.S. four-star General, former Director of the U.S. National Security Agency, and former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, stated that the proposed ban makes Americans “less safe” by alienating current and future intelligence sources in the Middle East[1].  If such posturing continues it would jeopardize U.S. efforts to gain intelligence from sources which have typically been cooperative with the U.S., 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 U.S. receives from other governments can always be refined and improved through cooperation and collaboration rather than divisiveness.  

Smart Technology Investments

While the U.S. Congress weighs the cost-benefit of expanding the U.S./Mexico border wall, they should also consider the technology needs of U.S. officials vetting international travelers at U.S. air and land ports of entry.  To process the growing volume of air passengers and their associated data, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers, coordinating with other U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, require state-of-the-art automated systems, utilizing 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 U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. CBP, the FBI, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and global security. 

The safety of Americans cannot be solely focused on border walls and overly-simplified “vetting” of travelers. 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.