Air-Travel Prescreening Is Laden with Baggage

On the side of the system that's less visible to travelers, where airlines check the names of their passengers against two terrorist watch lists, the government is still where it was before the terrorist attacks.


The aviation security precautions put in place after the Sept. 11 terror attacks are, five years later, considered just part of the routine associated with modern air travel. Passengers must remove their shoes, and laptop computers have to come out of their cases. Occasionally travelers are selected to be "sniffed" by a machine that can detect explosives. And after British authorities unraveled a plot to set off liquid explosives aboard U.S.-bound airliners, restrictions have been placed on liquids and gels that can be carried on board.

Those measures have not only made air travel safer, they have had the effect of making passengers feel safer as well.

But on the side of the system that's less visible to travelers, where airlines check the names of their passengers against two terrorist watch lists, the government is still where it was before the terrorist attacks. An independent Sept. 11 commission last year gave the Bush administration an "F" for airline passenger prescreening, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued several reports critical of the government's efforts.

The Transportation Security Administration's program to upgrade the prescreening system, called Secure Flight, is behind schedule for a number of policy and bureaucratic reasons, government officials and aviation experts say. The TSA continues to struggle with the balance between security and privacy. The agency has been through a number of leadership changes that have hindered its ability to concentrate on the problem. And airlines, concerned about flight delays due to passenger screening, have been hesitant to sign off on the new program until they are sure that it won't hurt their bottom lines.

Lawmakers have taken notice of the program's problems. Congress has spent $135 million on the Secure Flight program since 2002 but decided this year to hold back. For fiscal year 2007, it has funded the program at $15 million even though President Bush requested $40 million for it.

The result, experts say, is an aviation security system that still focuses heavily on what passengers are carrying as opposed to the passengers themselves -- an emphasis that leaves airliners nearly as vulnerable as they were on Sept. 11, 2001.

"They are very seriously off track," said Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

As with many aspects of the fight against terrorism since Sept. 11, aviation security also must find a balance between safeguarding privacy and the need to ferret out potential terrorists.

In 2002, the TSA unveiled a plan to update its passenger prescreening system by assigning numerical risk profiles to individual travelers -- the higher the risk, the higher the number. But the administration dropped the idea after civil libertarians complained that the personal information the government would need to create such profiles would violate privacy rights.

Privacy advocates have raised similar concerns about Secure Flight, which would draw from a consolidated watch list for its domestic passenger prescreening. TSA officials have said that the agency will not dig into an individual's commercial data, mollifying those who feared that Secure Flight could become a domestic data-mining program. Indeed, officials say the program would return to the existing mission of simply matching passenger names with those on watch lists.

In an interview last week, TSA Director Kip Hawley gave assurances that he was focused on balancing Secure Flight's security goals with privacy concerns. But Hawley would not say what kind of personal data the TSA would need for the program.

That lack of clarity is causing problems. For example, in cases in which individuals have the same name, TSA officials say they will need more information about individuals to make sure that the government has the right person on its list. But privacy advocates say questions remain about how deeply the federal government should be allowed to dig into one's personal information. At some point, the digging becomes government intrusion.

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