SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli
The Security Swamp
Secure Flight, the government's new airline passenger-screening program, wants to identify troublemakers. But making it work might be a nightmare for travelers.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009; 11:52 AM
The name on my passport, my preferred form of travel identification, is Joseph Angelo Brancatelli. I was born on May 22, 1953. And I am a male.
I tell you these admittedly prosaic bits of personal trivia because I want you to know that I am not against giving this information to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). And if you want to fly, you, too, will soon be required to disclose this data to the TSA, the lumbering, leaderless, secretive bureaucracy that has spent the years since 9/11 alternately keeping us safe and infuriating us.
Secure Flight, the official name of this latest bit of data mining by the federal bureaucracy with the power over your freedom of movement, kicked in last week in typical TSA style: suddenly, with virtually no public discussion and even fewer details about its implementation. According to the agency's press release, which is buried half-a-dozen clicks deep on the TSA website, Secure Flight is now operative on four airlines. Which airlines? The TSA won't say. When will Secure Flight be extended to other carriers? Sometime in the next year, but the agency won't publicly disclose a timeline or discuss the whys, wherefores, and practical details.
Before we can even discuss why a federal agency needs to know when you were born before it permits you to fly, let's back up and explain the security swamp that the TSA has created.
Born in haste after 9/11, the TSA was specifically tasked by Congress to assume overall authority for airport security and pre-flight passenger screening. Before that, airlines were required to oversee security checkpoints, and carriers farmed out the job to rent-a-cop agencies. Their work was shoddy, and the minimum-wage screeners were often untrained.
Despite some birthing pains and well-publicized missteps, the TSA eventually got a more professional crew of 40,000 or so screeners working the checkpoints. Generally speaking, the checkpoint experience is more professional and courteous now, if not actually more secure. In fact, despite rigorous employee training and billions of dollars spent on new technology, random tests show that TSA screeners miss as much contraband as their minimum-wage, rent-a-cop predecessors.
But the TSA's mission wasn't just passenger checkpoints. Congress asked the new agency to screen all cargo traveling on passenger jets. (The TSA has resisted the mandate and still doesn't screen all cargo.) Congress also empowered the TSA to oversee a private "trusted traveler" program that would speed the journey of frequent fliers who voluntarily submitted to invasive background checks. (The TSA has all but killed trusted traveler, which morphed into inconsequential "registered traveler" programs like Clear.)
Most important of all perhaps, both Congress and the 9/11 Commission wanted the TSA to get a handle on "watch lists" and other government data programs aimed at identifying potential terrorists before they flew. And nowhere has the agency been more ham-fisted than in the information arena.
The TSA's first attempt to corral data, CAPPS II, was an operational and Constitutional nightmare. The Orwellian scheme envisioned travelers being profiled with huge amounts of sensitive private data -- credit records, for example -- that the government would store indefinitely. Everyone -- privacy advocates, airlines, airports, civil libertarians and certainly travelers -- hated CAPPS II. The TSA grudgingly killed the plan in 2004 after some high-profile data-handling gaffes made its implementation a political impossibility.
While this security kabuki was playing out, the number and size of government watch lists of potential terrorists ballooned. Current estimates say there are as many as a million entries on the various lists, although the TSA argues that only a few thousand actual people are suspect.
But how do you reconcile the blizzard of watch-list names -- some as common as Nelson, which has been a hassle for singer/actor David Nelson of Ozzie & Harriet TV fame -- with the actual bad guys who are threats to aviation?
Enter Secure Flight, a stripped-down version of CAPPS II. The TSA's theory: If passengers submit their exact names, dates of birth, and their gender when they make reservations, the agency could proactively separate the terrorist Nelsons from the television Nelsons, and guarantee that the average Joe -- or, in my case, the average Joseph Angelo -- won't be fingered as a potential troublemaker.