A few months ago, the White House quietly issued a classified joint Homeland Security Presidential Directive / National Security Presidential Directive – HSPD-16/NSPD-47 – and has not released its contents. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about the directive in mid-August, noting that it contained the following contents:
The order, confirmed to The Chronicle by officials with knowledge of its contents, focuses on threats to aircraft from passenger baggage and air cargo — including detection of conventional, nuclear, radiological, and chemical devices — securing the airspace over the continental United States, and developing technologies to detect and prevent missile attacks on aircraft.
The directive, known as both National Security Presidential Directive 47 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 16, also orders the agencies to implement a plan to check airline passenger lists against the government’s watch lists and to assume the costs of conducting the database searches. The cost of checking passenger lists currently falls to the airlines.
Recently a notice appeared in the Federal Register that is the first government confirmation of HSPD-16/NSPD-47 that I’ve seen. The notice describes a new Plan for the Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic, which cleary defines DOD, DOT, and DHS roles in the event of an emergency airspace incident, and establishes a “ESCAT Air Traffic Priority List (EATPL)” which serves as an order of priority for use and entry into U.S. airspace in the event of the activation of this plan.
This EATPL seems a bit out of balance to me, putting state and local law enforcement and first response activities near the end of the air traffic priority list, after a long list of military air assets. In a scenario where an attack has taking place and out-of-region emergency services are needed, it seems as if this priority list create a risk that state and local response assets would be stuck at the back of the queue, behind military assets who may be necessary to secure airspace and facilitate continuity of government, but who aren’t going to save any civilian lives. Hopefully this is an issue that is being discussed between DHS and DOD; otherwise this could lead to of the same command-and-control response breakdowns that we saw in the response to Hurricane Katrina.