Advancing a Free Society

Counterterrorism: Why President Obama Loves Travel Data as Much as He Loves Drones

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Anyone who’s read Skating on Stilts knows I am a big believer in using travel data for counterterrorism purposes.  What’s more interesting is that the Obama administration has been just as enthusiastic.  Some of the reasons for its enthusiasm showed up in testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee last week, when the Department of Homeland Security released stories about its use of travel data that I had not seen before.

Remember Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber who was pulled off a plane at JFK as it was preparing to leave the country?  It turns out that travel data was his nemesis, helping DHS and the FBI track him at every turn:

  Early in this investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) learned of Shahzad‘s cell phone number from a report shared by DHS.  The FBI ran the phone number in their ACS system and was able to connect it to the DHS report. Through good interagency cooperation, the FBI asked DHS if it had encountered any individual who reported this phone number during border crossings.  DHS searched its PNR database for the phone number, identified Shahzad, and learned other information he had provided to DHS.  DHS then provided the additional data to the FBI.  Later, Shahzad attempted to flee the United States, but DHS‘s analysis of departing passenger data identified him before departure and DHS removed him from the aircraft.

Najibullah Zazi was the guy who rented a truck and drove cross country to set off explosives in the New York City subway. It turns out we used travel data to identify the scope of the conspiracy and to interrogate him.

Continue reading Stewart Baker…