The Bush administration is set to begin using a controversial aviation screening system under a new name and in a much less comprehensive way to make it more palatable to passengers and travel industry officials who complained that the earlier plan was overly intrusive, government officials said yesterday.
The computer system, known as CAPPS II, was designed to authenticate the identity of passengers, assess them for risk and match their names against burgeoning databases containing the names of known or suspected terrorists.
In its latest version, which sources said will be called "Secure Flight," Transportation Security Administration officials said they have dropped or changed some of the more controversial and embarrassing elements of the earlier proposal. One plan is for the agency to take over the task of matching airline passengers against various terrorist watch lists, which is now conducted by airline employees. Two members of Congress revealed last week that they were stopped and initially refused boarding on airline flights because their names matched those on the lists.
David M. Stone, the TSA administrator, told a House panel yesterday that his agency wants to show it is trying to be responsive to calls from the commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for a more intelligent way to distinguish airline passengers from possible hijackers and terrorists.
But the change, the latest in a series of upheavals that have dogged the effort, also reflects the political sensitivities of the times. People close to the project say that Secure Flight is a temporary measure intended to mollify critics of CAPPS II while improving security. They said the use of the computer system built for CAPPS II will likely expand after the presidential election. Government officials still haven't implemented a system that achieves what they say are two key elements of crucial aviation security: improved verification of passenger's identities and assessment of the risk they pose to an aircraft.
"They're just trying to do something they know is going to be a step in the right direction but won't cause the public to shoot them," said a person involved in the project. "It's all being hampered by the political problem."
Stone said the new program will be announced within "days or weeks," but another TSA official said the timing could come as early as the end of the week. "What we'll soon roll out here will specifically address the 9/11 report and reduce the number of passengers in the nation's airports who are selected for secondary screening," Stone said, referring to the extensive pat-downs and luggage searches that some passengers are subjected to at the security checkpoint or at the gate.
Under the revised program, the government no longer plans to match every airline passenger against commercial information services to determine how "rooted" in the community the traveler is. Such services typically are used for direct marketing and would be used, for example, to confirm a passenger's address and phone number.
According to the 9/11 report, half of the hijackers involved in the terrorist attacks were flagged by the existing Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening program, known as CAPPS. But the program is based on antiquated assumptions about hijackers and assigns extra screening only to passengers who fit a certain behavioral profile, such as those who buy a one-way ticket or pay with cash.
TSA said that its plan to take over responsibility from the airlines for matching passengers to the terrorist watch lists would allow the government to draw on a broader array of names of suspected terrorists from other intelligence agencies. Some intelligence agencies are reluctant to add names to a watch list that is in the hands of airline employees because of concerns that they could be leaked or fall into the wrong hands, a TSA source said.
Stone told the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee yesterday that the lists are already being expanded through new agreements.
It was unclear yesterday how TSA officials would be able to better authenticate the identity of innocent travelers who find themselves caught in the list glitches that recently ensnared Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Spokesman Mark Hatfield said the TSA will be testing a system to eliminate those problems.
An airline source familiar with the program said carriers are concerned that the new plan would require them to overhaul their reservation systems. Each carrier has a different system for storing reservations and maintaining complete passenger manifests internally. Because passengers may buy an airline ticket at the last minute or standby passengers might be allowed to board a flight just before the door closes, airlines have little confidence that they will be able to turn over that information to the TSA quickly enough without incurring delays, the source said. Some carriers do not complete the manifest until the plane has departed the gate.
"There are more questions than answers" with how this would work, said the airline source, who spoke on condition that he not be named because the program has not yet been announced. "The primary reason for collecting manifests by computer has been for having an accurate record of everyone on board in case of an accident. It has not been for determining who's on board for security reasons," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the TSA on behalf of hundreds of innocent travelers whose names have turned up on the watch lists, said that any new system must ensure privacy protections.
"Although CAPPS II faces an uncertain future, the development of its successor still lurks in the shadows," LaShawn Warren, the ACLU's legislative counsel, said in a statement.