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Traveling Americans confront long TSA lines, fears of terrorism

June 9, 2016 at 7:30 PM EDT
Across the country, millions of summer travelers are experiencing record wait times in TSA security lines. Meanwhile, travel warnings have been issued for Americans heading to Europe, as fears of terrorist attacks increase. For more on the security issues facing the nation, Judy Woodruff talks to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The first official day of summer is just around the corner, but the summer travel season is well under way, and travelers at major airports across the country are enduring record wait times at security checkpoints.

Meanwhile, travel warnings have been issued for Americans heading to Europe, over fears of terrorist attacks there. All this comes as the threat of terrorism here at home persists.

Joining me now to discuss all this is the man who oversees Homeland Security, Secretary Jeh Johnson.

And, Mr. Secretary, welcome.

JEH JOHNSON, Secretary of Homeland Security: Thanks for having me, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is the status of security screening at American airports right now? We heard so much about it, about the problems a week or so ago.

JEH JOHNSON: First, we are not going to compromise aviation security in order to expedite wait times, in order to short-cut wait times.

We’re going to keep passengers moving, but we’re also going to keep them safe. So, beginning last year, we began to really take a hard look at aviation security and refocus our efforts. And we knew then that it would lead to longer wait times for a lot of travelers in the busiest airports.

Couple that with the travel volume we’re seeing this summer, and that has led to the wait times in some of the nation’s busiest airports at particular times of the day, like the situation in Chicago O’Hare a couple of weeks ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JEH JOHNSON: In the meantime, we have brought on to full-time status a lot of TSOs. We have authorized additional…

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are your officers.

JEH JOHNSON: Yes, the TSA officers that you see at the airports.

We authorized a lot of overtime for them. We’re using more canine teams. And right now, we have pending in Congress a request to do what we call reprogramming of more money to bring on more and convert more part-time to full-time TSOs, which will add to the screening capability and lower the wait times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did it get to this point? TSA is what, now, 15 years old.

JEH JOHNSON: We have rededicated ourselves to aviation security in response to the world situation, frankly.

That is something that I directed TSA to do about a year ago. That has led to added wait times, and you couple that with the increased travel volume we’re seeing, and it has led to some of the very long lines in the nation’s busiest airports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when you say rededicate yourself to — yourselves at homeland security to figuring out what the problems are and dealing with them, does that mean you found deficiencies, clear deficiencies?

JEH JOHNSON: Well, as a lot of people know, last summer, there was an inspector general’s report that, unfortunately, leaked that revealed certain flaws in a specific type of screening that we conduct at certain airports.

And that required us to take a real hard look at aviation security. And so the new administrator took office, the new TSA administrator, Pete Neffenger, took office July 6. On July 6, I swore him in and I gave him a 10-point plan for rededicating ourselves to aviation security in reaction to that I.G. report and the world situation that we’re seeing with some of the challenges across the globe.

And so the administrator has implemented that, and that has added to the security at screening checkpoints.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In addition to that, you have, of course, the Brussels attack, where what the terrorist did was, they attacked that area outside the secure part of the airport. What has that meant here in the U.S.?

JEH JOHNSON: We have been focused on airport security now for almost two years, really. We have directed continuous random screening of airport and airline personnel.

We have reduced the number of access points to sterile areas through which airport airline employees pass. But, in general, an airport, before you go through security, is a public area, just like a train station, just like a bus station, just like an athletic event. And so there we need to work with local authorities, airport security, to ensure that travelers are safe when they’re in these public places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We mentioned, as part of all this, that warnings have recently been issued to Americans planning travel to Europe, you know, in connection with the terrorist incidents over there. What is — how worried, how concerned should Americans be?

JEH JOHNSON: My advice is, Americans should continue to travel. They should continue to travel during the summer months, but be vigilant, be aware, pay attention to State Department advisories about particular countries, particular places at particular times.

But, in general, we’re not discouraging people from traveling, but they should pay attention to those State Department advisories.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple of other quick questions about the terrorist aspect of all this.

One of the criticisms that grew out of the attacks in Brussels and Paris was the poor intelligence-sharing between countries in Europe, the members of the Europe — so-called European Union.

How much of a problem is that, and does that affect the United States?

JEH JOHNSON: I think we’re moving in the right direction with our European allies.

I have spent a lot of time personally with my European counterparts, ministers of the interior, and those in the law enforcement intelligence community. And we are seeing in general a greater level of information-sharing with our European allies.

I think that European nations realize now the value of information sharing, both with each other and with the United States. And just since I have been secretary, I have seen that level of cooperation increase, and we’re going to keep at this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, Mr. Secretary, we have recently seen several prosecutions of Americans who were trying to join ISIS.

How big a problem right now does this country have with Americans who are trying to join ISIS or who are simply inspired by ISIS?

JEH JOHNSON: In this environment of not only the prospect of a terrorist-directed attack, like, you know, where somebody is recruited overseas and exported to another country, but we’re also now dealing with the prospect of terrorist-inspired attacks, as you just mentioned, and this other category called terrorist-enabled attacks.

We have got to focus on countering violent extremism here at home and monitoring the travel of suspected terrorist individuals. There are two components to that which I think are two centerpieces of our homeland security efforts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, what is the — what are the — what’s the main thing that keeps you awake at night that has to do with your job?

JEH JOHNSON: A lot of people ask me that.

And I would say that there are a lot of things that keep me up at night. Homeland security is counterterrorism. It’s cyber-security. It’s border security, port security, response to natural disasters. And we have got to keep an eye on all of it, and I think we do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s a lot.

Secretary Jeh Johnson, thank you very much.

JEH JOHNSON: Thank you.

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