U.S. Government to Test if Air Passenger Screening Can ID Terror Cells

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. government will try to determine whether commercial data can be used to detect terrorist ''sleeper cells'' when it checks airline passengers against watch lists, the official running the project says.

The Transportation Security Administration has been testing the project, known as Secure Flight, since November, but it is being criticized on grounds it violates privacy laws.

Secure Flight is supposed to be a more accurate method of checking passenger manifests against terrorist watch lists than the current system, which is run by the airlines.

Many people who aren't terrorists - among them Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts - have been told they can't board flights because their names are similar to those on the no-fly list.

Secure Flight hit a snag Friday when congressional investigators said TSA had violated privacy protections when its contractor secretly collected 100 million records of commercially brokered information on at least 250,000 people.

Justin Oberman, in charge of Secure Flight at TSA, said the agency intends to do more testing of commercial data to see if it will help identify known or suspected terrorists not on the watch lists.

''We are trying to use commercial data to verify the identities of people who fly because we are not going to rely on the watch list,'' he said. ''If we just rise and fall on the watch list, it's not adequate.''

Oberman defended the previous test of commercial data, saying it was highly instructive and that the agency has since revised its processes to tell people about the information it's collecting.

Barry Steinhardt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said the government ought to improve the lists instead of spying on U.S. citizens.

He said the plan to use commercial data to do more than to verify air travelers' identity could resemble the failed Pentagon project known as Total Information Awareness, which plumbed public and private records for clues about terrorism.

''If what they're proposing to do here is search through commercial data to find patterns that suggest possible terrorism involvement, that's TIA,'' Steinhardt said.

Oberman said Secure Flight will improve the current system because the technology will be better and the lists will be bigger than what the airlines use. And, he said, it will help the FBI keep an eye on suspected terrorists.

''We're going to be connected to the FBI on the back end to make sure the agents who know about the suspected threats know they're traveling,'' he said.

Oberman said there's a very high bar to clear before the plan to try to ferret out terrorists who aren't on watch lists is actually implemented.

He said TSA, part of the Homeland Security Department, is committed to protecting privacy rights as it develops Secure Flight.

TSA, though, had promised in formal notices last year that it would only use the limited information about passengers who flew in June 2004 that it had obtained from airlines.

Instead, the agency and its contractors compiled files on people using data from commercial brokers and then compared those files with the lists.

The TSA took 43,000 names of passengers and used about 200,000 variations of those names _ who turned out to be real people who may not have flown that month, congressional investigators said.

Oberman said that the test has no impact on anyone who travels and that the data will be destroyed when the test is over.