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How Not to Make Us Secure

I’d like to share a personal experience that has ripple effects on our collective sense of “homeland security.” As the head of a global leadership consulting firm, I travel frequently in and out of the United States. As a green card holder married to a U.S. citizen, I’d never had any problems doing so. I grew up in New York, the son of a Pakistani consul general, attended Stanford University, lived here as an adult. Emotionally, the United States has been my home for a long time.

Last October returning to the United States from Canada, I was pulled aside for “secondary inspection.” I sighed but reconciled myself (after all, if it can happen to Ted Kennedy) to what I hoped would be a minor inconvenience.

We missed our flight. Finally, I was called in. Apparently airline databases respond only to names. In parts of the world, Omar Khan is as common a name as John Smith. Although I have an uncommon middle name, “Saqib,” the database isn’t that sophisticated. Still, stopping every Omar Khan doesn’t seem very efficient to me.

I am a consultant, and I think in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. The weary immigration supervisor told me that even pilots who fly the Toronto-La Guardia sector every week are stopped repeatedly.

“You mean I have to go through this every time?”

I asked. Apparently. I was warned to expect to spend two to three hours each time attempting to get back into the country of which I am a legal resident. This struck me as insane. How are we made safer by repeated security checks because of an indiscriminate emphasis on generic names?

Earlier I’d had a similar experience in the Philippines. Another Omar Khan had written bad checks there. But unlike the bureaucratic Homeland Security, the immigration supervisor there was empowered. After checking the facts and my passport, she waved me through. She suggested I could avoid being stopped in the future: I could present myself at the appropriate ministry, let them run a check, and issue a document for future visits. As I had a long-term consulting commitment with a firm there, I did so. The whole process took 30 minutes, and the Philippine authorities and I are now spared a needless hassle and waste of time.

A month ago I came back to the United States. As predicted, there had been no update to the database. It took more than two hours again. The exasperated immigration officers told me that they had to process the same people, even if they could verify that they had already done so, because they couldn’t use their judgment. One of their own supervisors had been detained for more than three hours, even after showing his credentials! Because of global consulting assignments, I may be in and out of the United States 15 to 20 times a year. I suggest that checking the same people on the same route each week is a sheer waste of resources. During the last multi-hour fiasco the immigration guys and I consulted and came up with some simple and immediately achievable solutions.

For one, database management should allow classification by more than first and last name. Anyone can figure out a way of listing a cleared person’s passport or green card number for immediate future clearance. Thereafter, immigration could focus on those we are seeking.

Currently non-residents coming into the United States are photographed and fingerprinted, a 30 second-process. It would be simple to do the same for those pulled aside for secondary inspection, even citizens or residents (If there are civil liberties concerns, people could be offered this choice). That way, the next time, each person’s photo and fingerprint, correlated if necessary with ID, would show that he or she previously had been cleared. Limited resources could be better deployed.

Finally, and critically, it is a principle of leadership practice to empower people as close to where decisions have to be made as possible. With clear parameters, immigration officers with years of experience should be able to decide whether someone can be excluded from consideration. Otherwise we’re wasting the experience and judgment of the professionals we have.

When our ports are not fully protected, our borders inadequately guarded, and only a portion of imported cargo X-rayed, it seems to me we have higher priorities than processing the same people repeatedly.

Originally published in The Washington Post

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