WASHINGTON: A US-style airport security program will soon be set up in Yemen, where an Al-Qaeda affiliate has engineered a string of failed international airline attacks, US officials said Thursday.
"We have a program that will be starting up in the very near future, an 18-month program with Yemen," Vicki Reeder of the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told a Senate hearing on international airline safety.
"We have been working extensively with Yemen," she added.
Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has claimed it was behind a foiled air cargo bomb plot in October, in which printer toner cartridges that had been rigged as bombs were shipped out of Sanaa.
Investigators believe the cartridge-bombs were supposed to explode over the United States.
AQAP is also accused of having tried to blow up an airliner as it arrived in the United States on Christmas Day last year. The would-be weapon in that attack was a bomb sewn into the underpants of a young Nigerian.
Reeder said body scanners that could have caught the explosives were being used in Amsterdam, where the so-called "underpants bomber" departed, but not in the terminal for direct flights to the United States.
Since the botched attack, the Dutch have placed full-body scanners at all airport departure points for the United States.
The two foiled attacks were key in spurring US security agencies to massively step up checks at airports, using controversial X-ray scanners that show a graphic image of the body and "enhanced" pat-downs, in which TSA agents have to touch travelers’ private parts.
All domestic US air cargo is screened before transport, and the United States expects to screen 100 percent of international cargo by 2013, said David Heyman of the Department of Homeland Security.
The United States has also been pushing other countries to start using the so-called "naked" scanners, some 385 of which have been deployed at around 70 US airports so far.
Far fewer are in use internationally, with only around a dozen countries besides the United States "testing or deploying these scanners now or committed to deploying them in the near future," said Steven Lord of the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
In those countries, which Lord did not name, officials have expressed concerns about travelers’ privacy and possible health risks posed by the scanners, similar to those raised by US travelers and rights groups.
But US lawmakers said Thursday that the beefed-up security measures were there to stay.
"There really isn’t any choice. Others have learned how to live with this, and I think we can too," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, chair of the Commerce Committee, which hosted the hearing.
Americans should "face reality," he added.
Byron Dorgan, the chair of the aviation security subcommittee, said that while the X-ray scans and pat-downs were controversial, they were "critically important" to ensure travelers’ safety both in the United States and at foreign airports, where many of the recent foiled attacks originated.