US flag Official website of the Department of Homeland Security

Archived Content

In an effort to keep current, the archive contains content from a previous administration or is otherwise outdated.

Commissioner Kerlikowske’s Remarks at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Counter-Terrorism Event

Release Date: 
March 21, 2016

If You See Something, Say Something
Remarks as prepared for March 21, 2016

I am honored to be here on behalf of Secretary Johnson; unfortunately he was unable to attend, but I am delighted to be able to participate in his stead.

I would also like to recognize, MTA Chairman Tom Pendergast, who couldn’t be here with us today, and thank him for his efforts to promote anti-terrorism within the MTA system.

Tragedies like the terror attacks last November in Paris, and in San Bernardino the following month remind us that we are witnessing a constantly evolving threat environment – here and around the world.  

Of course, this year we are marking the 15th anniversary of the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil – September 11, 2001.

The ad campaign, rolled out shortly after that attack, quickly gained momentum in the New York metropolitan area and then spread throughout the country.

This morning, I’d like to tell you about what the Department of Homeland Security – and, specifically, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is doing to keep our nation safe from terrorist threats.

We’ve all seen the signs and heard the audio messages – in train and bus stations, at U.S. airports – all over the country, in English and in Spanish. So I want to thank the NY MTA for licensing the “If You See Something, Say Something ™” slogan to the Department.

Since the Department launched its campaign in July 2010, we have been able to bring the important public awareness message nationwide. We’ve been able to bring this important messaging to various locations and prominent events – including: the Super Bowl, NASCAR, airports, mass transit, major sports leagues, shopping malls, music festivals and many state and local partnerships. Just two weeks ago, DHS and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) jointly released a new PSA and an in-game message for the upcoming NCAA Winter and Spring Championships.

We couldn’t have had this kind of success without the MTA – we thank you for your continued partnership and support to the Department of Homeland Security to share this message nationwide.

Every day, DHS receives inquiries from people wanting to partner with the campaign – and DHS saw a dramatic spike in interest following the Paris attacks last November and the shooting in San Bernardino, California the following month.

This important message has even made its way all the way to the President, who mentioned it in his remarks back in November after the Paris attacks.

So our partnership with the NY MTA – and with so many other public and private sector organizations – are absolutely essential to protecting the homeland.

In 2011, DHS replaced the color-coded alerts of the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) with the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS).  In the years since 9/11, the Department has continually refined NTAS. The color-coded system was phased out in 2011 and replaced by a two-tier Alert system – Elevated and Imminent.

For alerts, if there is enough information regarding a credible, specific terrorist threat in the United States, DHS will share an NTAS Alert – either “elevated” or “imminent” with the public.

Elevated Alerts warn people about a credible terror threat that is general in both timing and potential location. Elevated Alerts can include specific information about the nature of the threat, including the geographic region, the transportation mode, or even the intended target – such as a school, shopping mall, or train station.

An Imminent Alert warns people about a credible, specific, and impending terrorist threat or an on-going attack.

Both kinds of alerts include instructions about the steps that individuals and communities can take to protect themselves. However, an NTAS Alert has not been issued in the past because no threat streams had risen to the level required to release an Alert. 

Recognizing the need for more flexibility, last December the Department refined its system by introducing Bulletins.

Bulletins provide information describing broader or more general trends and current developments regarding threats of terrorism. Bulletins also share important terrorism-related information with the American public and various partners and stakeholders, including in those situations where additional precautions may be warranted, but where the circumstances do not warrant the issuance of an “elevated” or “imminent” alert. An NTAS Bulletin will summarize the issue and why it’s important for public awareness, outline U.S. Government counterterrorism efforts, and offer recommendations to the public on how it can contribute to those efforts.

DHS issued its first bulletin on December 16. That Bulletin warns that the increasing use of the Internet by terror groups to recruit people could contribute to more isolated, self-radicalized actors who may strike with little or no notice and who operate with no direct instruction from terrorist groups. The update to the NTAS that the Department announced in December helps us ensure that Americans across the country have the information they need to keep themselves and their communities safer. 

Turning to how the Department and its components combat terrorism, DHS engages in international cooperation through bilateral and multilateral efforts to share information with foreign allies. DHS and other agencies and departments have established more than 80 bilateral arrangements with 45 partner countries to share information on known and suspected foreign terrorist fighters for use by law enforcement, border authorities and security services.

CBP and DHS also continually refine our border security operations.

At CBP, we focus our resources on the greatest risks – extending our security measures outward – to interdict threats before they reach the United States. At the same time, we’re mindful of our dual mission – balancing border security with our responsibility to facilitate lawful travel and trade – which is challenging in light of increasing volumes of passengers and cargo.

Transportation infrastructure – hubs like airports and train stations, as well as airliners, trains, and buses – have proven to be appealing terror targets.

Let’s look at the air environment: In Fiscal Year 2015, CBP processed more than 112 million travelers at our Nation’s airports. We’ve developed and strategically deployed our resources to detect, assess, and mitigate the risk posed by travelers at every stage along the international travel continuum: when an individual applies for travel documents; reserves or purchases an airline ticket; checks-in at an airport; while en route; and upon arrival.

This includes visa safeguards, pre-departure targeting and review of airline data on all passengers, and if any derogatory information or other risks are discovered, CBP can take action in several ways overseas, prior to actual travel, to address these concerns.  

Through CBP’s Preclearance program, for example, our officers operate on foreign soil, in uniform with search authorities and operational capabilities similar to what we have here in the United States. Travelers are questioned, queried through our databases, and inspected before they board the aircraft. Preclearance requires an agreement with the host country to allow us to operate in such a manner, but after a flight is precleared at a foreign airport, the flight is generally treated as a domestic flight once it arrives in the U.S. 

In May 2015, DHS announced the intent to enter into negotiations to expand preclearance operations at 10 additional foreign airports, in nine foreign countries with flights to the United States. For example, our preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2014, is critically important, as it is a transit hub for numerous high risk pathways for terrorist travel which gives CBP a critical security operation in a strategic location.  In 2015, more than 600,000 passengers used the preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi to process their arrival documents before arriving in this country. Approximately 100,000 of these travelers began their trip in Abu Dhabi, while the rest were transiting through from other countries.

We also have our Immigration Advisory Program, where CBP officers in plain clothes at 11 foreign airports in 9 countries work with air carriers and foreign authorities to identify and address potential threats. They can question travelers in an advisory capacity, and can recommend additional security screening, or recommend an airline not to board a traveler based upon pre-departure vetting.

Since the program’s creation in 2004, IAP screening procedures have resulted in denial of boarding of nearly 29,000 U.S.-bound travelers – nearly 4,000 in Fiscal year 2015 alone. So far in Fiscal Year 2016, IAP officers have conducted document exams and passenger assessments for more than 14,000 U.S.-bound travelers, of which nearly 1,700 were denied boarding.

In locations without preclearance or IAP operations, our Regional Carrier Liaison Groups have established relationships with commercial airlines to deny boarding to U.S.-bound passengers who may pose a security threat, have fraudulent documents, or are otherwise inadmissible. 

It’s important to note that at every stage of the travel process, CBP continues to vet passengers and travel information – including visas and ESTA authorizations to ensure that any changes in a traveler’s eligibility are identified in near real-time.

This continual vetting allows us to coordinate appropriate actions, such as referring individuals for further inspection upon arrival.   

Upon arrival in the United States, all travelers are subject to inspection. Our officers review entry documents, conduct interviews, and run appropriate biometric and biographic queries against law enforcement databases.

CBP also conducts outbound operations, leveraging all available advance travel information, and applying intelligence-driven targeting rules to identify, and – when appropriate – interview and/or apprehend travelers for law enforcement or security related reasons. 

Finally, CBP has Counter-Terrorism Response protocols at all land, air, and sea ports of entry if we encounter travelers who have possible links to terrorism. These protocols mandate immediate notification of our National Targeting Center, and they also involve coordination with our law enforcement partners at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Terrorist Screening Center, the National Counter-Terrorism Center, and ICE.

In closing, I want to thank the New York MTA and President Guiletti for hosting this important event. We are proud to work with all of you, your partners and your stakeholders to keep the traveling public – and all of our communities – safe and secure.

Thank you.

Last modified: 
February 8, 2017