By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
The U.S. government's no-fly list has shortcomings that could allow suspected terrorists and people with ties to terrorism to board U.S.-bound airplanes from overseas, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said.
Foreign and U.S. carriers departing for the United States are required to check each passenger's name against the no-fly list before takeoff, but some airlines complain that they sometimes do not have access to the full, or most up-to-date, version.
Since September 2004, the United States has ordered seven international flights to alter course, forcing them either to divert to a designated airport or return to their departure site.
In the most recent incidents, an Alitalia flight from Milan to Boston was told to land at Bangor, Maine, last week and an Air France flight from Paris to Boston was diverted to Bangor the week before. In both cases, the apparent passenger "hit" was false, but U.S. officials could not determine that until the passenger was removed and interviewed -- a process that costs carriers hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel, crew time and schedule changes.
"We don't know whether procedurally they don't always give us the most current list or whether there are other bad guys they don't want to share with us," said one industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process involves security-sensitive information. "We just know on a number of occasions we were told a person was on the no-fly list and he wasn't on ours."
Two Homeland Security officials and an aviation industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity said airlines are not given all names of suspected terrorists because some names require a security clearance to see them. These sources said they were not aware of flights that were diverted because a name of a person on board was too sensitive to pass along to an airline.
U.S. officials said they recognize that the current system relies too heavily on the checks that airlines conduct. The airlines are not required to send their passenger manifests to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials until 15 minutes after the flight departs. As a result, U.S. officials do not complete their checks against all terrorist watch lists until the plane is in the air.
Customs and Border Protection officials process about 250,000 passenger names every day against numerous government watch lists provided by the State Department, CIA, FBI and intelligence agencies. The process takes about an hour for each flight, which is why a plane is often midway over the Atlantic before the agency realizes it has a match on board.
Homeland Security officials said they can fix the shortcoming by requiring airlines to turn over passenger manifests to Customs and Border Protection 60 minutes before the flight leaves. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been discussing the proposal in meetings with officials in Europe this week.
"It's one area we see that we can improve on with a simple rule change that will cost the airlines no money," said Christiana Halsey, spokeswoman for Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency. European and U.S. carriers oppose the plan because they say it will require major delays for passengers with connecting flights and will require some carriers to alter their entire international flight schedules to accommodate U.S. rules.
"As this proposal has been described to us, it clearly has the potential to dramatically impact basic industry economics," said James C. May, president and chief executive of the Air Transport Association, the lobbying group for U.S. carriers.
The no-fly list was never viewed as a comprehensive security system but rather as one element of the passenger screening process. The list was started in the 1990s and had 12 names on it on Sept. 11, 2001, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. Homeland Security sources said the list has grown to about 30,000 names and changes "routinely" as new information streams in from the various agencies in charge of security and intelligence. The list is run by the Transportation Security Administration.
Homeland Security officials will not discuss the criteria that put an individual on the no-fly list or how one is removed, except to say that the list contains names and other information about people with ties to terrorism.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.