Government to Take Over Airline Passenger Vetting

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Department of Homeland Security will take over responsibility for checking airline passenger names against government watch lists beginning in January, and will require travelers for the first time to provide their full name, birth date and gender as a condition for boarding commercial flights, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Security officials say the additional personal information -- which will be given to airlines to forward to the federal agency in charge -- will dramatically cut down on cases of mistaken identity, in which people with names similar to those on watch lists are wrongly barred or delayed from flights.

The changes, to be phased in next year, will apply to 2 million daily passengers aboard all domestic flights and international flights to, from or over the United States. By transferring the screening duty from the airlines to the federal government, the Secure Flight program marks the Bush administration's long-delayed fulfillment of a top aviation security priority after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief Kip Hawley said yesterday that, except in rare situations, passengers who do not provide the additional information will not be given boarding passes.

"If you don't provide the data, then you are going to put yourself in a position where you are probably going to be a selectee," subject at a minimum to greater future security scrutiny, Chertoff said in remarks announcing the program at Reagan National Airport.

"We know that threats to our aviation system persist," he said. Secure Flight "will increase security and efficiency, it'll protect passengers' privacy, and it will reduce the number of false-positive misidentifications."

Over the years, watch-list mismatches have frustrated countless passengers whose names are similar to those on the agency's no-fly list, or on a second list of "selectees" identified for added questioning. The passengers have included infants and toddlers; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); and the wife of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Catherine, whose name is similar to Cat Stevens, the former name of the watch-listed Britain-based pop singer who converted to Islam.

Details about why certain passengers are stopped are normally not shared with travelers, who often endure long delays and pointed questions. DHS has received more than 43,500 requests for redress since February 2007 and has completed 24,000 of them, with the rest under review or awaiting more documentation, TSA spokesman Christopher White said.

But the number of people who actually match the names on the watch lists is minuscule, officials acknowledged. On average, DHS screeners discover a person who is actually on the no-fly list about once a month, usually overseas, and actual selectees daily, Hawley said.

To bolster their case for the new program, U.S. officials for their first time disclosed that the no-fly list includes fewer than 2,500 individuals and the selectee list fewer than 16,000. Ten percent of those named on the no-fly list and fewer than half on the selectee list are U.S. citizens, Chertoff said.

By taking over watch-list vetting from industry, the officials said, the government will consistently apply the most up-to-date list information and more sophisticated computer programs to catch name variations, and will avoid the risk of giving sensitive data to foreign air carriers, Chertoff said.

They estimated that adding identity details will allow "99 percent" of travelers to avoid delays -- all but 2,000 passengers a day.

Many details of Secure Flight -- which cost $200 million and five years to develop, and will cost an estimated $80 million a year to operate -- remain unclear. Final regulations will be published by early next month, officials said, and after that, airlines can begin requesting information after 60 days and must be ready to send data to the federal government after 270 days.

The TSA will phase in domestic airlines first and foreign flights and over-flights starting later next year. The officials offered no deadline for completing the process.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and subcommittee head Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said they are disappointed and troubled that full implementation may not occur for several months or years.

Air carriers, particularly foreign airlines, say the changes duplicate other security measures. They complain that retooling data systems will cost some of them millions of dollars and take several months.

Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents most foreign airlines, said the group's 230 members "are disappointed that the TSA did not accept many of our detailed recommendations on how to improve the Secure Flight program. . . . We look forward to working with the next Congress and Administration to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of these programs."

Privacy experts welcomed changes to Secure Flight but said problems remain. Two earlier versions were scrapped after civil libertarians warned that the vast new databases planned would violate Americans' privacy.

U.S. officials said Secure Flight will not tap commercial data, conduct "data-mining" or generate risk scores on passengers. Information on most passengers will be destroyed after seven days.

But the American Civil Liberties Union said the government still lacks adequate redress procedures for people mistakenly matched to secret watch lists based on the government's master terrorist database, which identifies about 400,000 individuals and includes roughly 1 million name records and aliases.

DHS's redress program "has proven to be a black hole that sucks in documents and information from those misidentified but never emits a final resolution to help affected travelers get off the lists and stay off the lists," said Caroline Fredrickson, head of the ACLU Washington legislative office.

"Until we fix the watch lists, reengineering Secure Flight is not enough," said Timothy Sparapani, ACLU senior legislative counsel.

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