New Airline Screening System Postponed
Controversy Over Privacy Leads to CAPPS II Paring, Delay Until After Election
By Sara Kehaulani Goo and Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page A02
The Bush administration has decided to scale back and delay the debut of a vast airline passenger screening program until after the presidential election, federal officials said yesterday.
The decision comes after months of meetings with airline officials and lawmakers who pressed the administration to drop more controversial elements of the program, known as Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Program, or CAPPS II.
Big disagreements about the system remain within the Department of Homeland Security itself, with some officials viewing it as a major aviation security improvement and others fearing it could alienate voters who view CAPPS II as a surveillance system that pries too far into passengers' lives, sources close to the project said.
Officials have already used some elements of the program, and it was scheduled to roll out in airports this fall. Department officials yesterday could not pinpoint a new start date or provide details on what aspects of the screening system would be dropped.
The program "remains, in my mind, one of the most important tools in the counterterrorism arsenal," said James M. Loy, deputy secretary of Homeland Security.
But, at least initially, the government would step back from plans to subject all passengers to CAPPS II screens, which marshal multiple government and private databases to assign each flier a risk level using a green, yellow or red color code, officials said. The extra screening may only kick in if a passenger's actions, such as paying cash for a ticket, flag him as suspect under the current system.
Officials said they also are likely to abandon plans to use the system to find passengers wanted for violent crimes.
Instead, sources familiar with the program said yesterday, the government will simply confirm a passenger's identity by, for example, asking to see a valid driver's license and then checking its authenticity with a commercial data service. Then an airline agent would match that name against increasingly robust watch lists of known terrorists.
While CAPPS II is on hold, the TSA plans this summer to push ahead with a more popular, voluntary program that allows frequent fliers to become "registered travelers" by providing personal information to the agency, along with a fingerprint or iris scan. If the agency accepts a passenger into the program, which requires a background check, the traveler will get an identification card that allows quicker passage through security lines.
CAPPS II was once described by the government's top security officials as the most important development in preventing terrorist attacks on commercial airliners. The government spent more than $60 million designing a computer system to verify a person's identity by comparing information from the airline reservation against commercial databases, such as those used by direct marketing firms.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company