Air-Travel Prescreening Is Laden with Baggage

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.

"Are you going to force people to turn in other pieces of information, such as a date of birth or a current phone number?" asked Elaine Gelman, associate director of Stanford University Law School's Center for Internet and Society and a member of a privacy working group that effectively sidelined Secure Flight last year. "What information is the watch list going to have to make that information verifiable?"

Stephanie Rowe, who runs the Secure Flight program at TSA, does not rule out using phone numbers and dates of birth to match the names. This has led privacy advocates to worry about an expanding and increasingly intrusive passenger prescreening program as the TSA gathers more and more information to accurately match the names to watch lists.

Tim Sparapani, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, points to the growing size of the terrorist-screening database, which the FBI now estimates contains hundreds of thousands of names.

He says that the database has led to increased incidents of "false positives" -- individuals mistakenly listed as suspicious. For example, just last week Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California, was prevented from printing out a boarding pass for an airline ticket online after her name appeared on the TSA's no-fly list. Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts also has been identified as a suspicious passenger.

Hawley assures critics that the TSA will not proceed with the Secure Flight program until it has resolved all of these privacy concerns. "The American public needs to know that when they give personal data to the government that there is a legitimate purpose for it, and it will be used for that and only that purpose," he said.

But the TSA's critics question whether a workable program can be devised. "They don't have standards for what goes on the list, nor do they have any way to correct the system," Lofgren said.

While Hawley and his team try to resolve the problems, airline executives have made clear that their industry, already in financial turmoil, cannot stand another hit. Airline officials worry about a security system that puts the wrong names on a watch list or violates the privacy of their customers.

Angry, inconvenienced passengers are not good for business. But the airlines are also concerned that they could lose money through delays if the TSA does not coordinate its Secure Flight program, which covers domestic passengers, with the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which keeps its eyes on international passengers arriving in the United States.

As Secure Flight is now structured, airlines would provide the TSA with passengers' names and personal data for all domestic flights, while also providing the CBP with data about international passengers. The two agencies would request separate sets of data before they compared passenger names against terrorist watchlists. This can be a burdensome process, especially if an arriving international passenger is connecting to a domestic flight.

Because such separate checks could delay flights and affect the airlines' bottom lines, Jim May, head of the Air Transport Association, the principle lobby for the airline industry, wants the Homeland Security Department to create a single office with a coordinated computer system that can handle all the passenger databases.

"Whether it's Customs and Border Protection requesting information for international flights, or it's TSA requesting information for domestic flights, there ought to be some uniform template for information that's got to be used in a uniform way," said May, who endorses the objectives behind Secure Flight.

Standing in the way of such a uniform system, however, is the expense of upgrading government computer technology to streamline the two programs, say former officials in the Homeland Security Department. And with Congress now slashing funding for the program, finding the money to pay for such technology upgrades is going to be difficult, they say.

Whether the TSA has the ability to solve these problems is partly dependent on its own organization. Perhaps the biggest obstacle that has prevented the Secure Flight program from getting off the ground, experts and government officials say, is the bureaucratic upheaval in the TSA itself during the past five years. Hawley, for example, is the agency's fourth director since Congress created the TSA in November 2001.

Bill Johnstone, a former Senate aide and staff member of the Sept. 11 commission, says Secure Flight's problems over the years are chiefly the consequence of the agency's leadership changes.

Johnstone spoke of "a lack of strategic direction" at the TSA. "You have it ebb and flow, based on the attitudes of the leadership at the time," he said.

Hawley has tried to dispel any suggestion of drift under his watch. His agency told the GAO earlier this year that it would complete the effort to revamp the Secure Flight program by September. But after unresolved privacy and airline industry concerns forced him to miss that deadline, Hawley now says there is no target date for establishing rules for the program. Now, he says, "we're focused on doing it right and not doing it fast."

There is no argument about that. Even after the rules have been made, the TSA will need up to two years to test the program, says James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy research organization in Washington.

And although the TSA said last year that it could staff the program with its own intelligence analysts, the agency now needs to hire more analysts to get the program working. According to program manager Rowe, "We have a couple of other roles to fill."

Overall, the problems that the Secure Flight program has experienced during the past three years have left government overseers dubious about its prospects.

Cathleen Berrick, a GAO official who oversees homeland security programs, says that despite TSA's efforts, she has detected little to give airline travelers the confidence that the unseen security precautions promised by the administration are actually taking shape. "I just don't exactly know what it is they're doing," she said.

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