Budget holdups could keep air travelers playing name game

What’s in a name? For some travelers flying to, from and around the United States since the 2001 terrorist attacks, it’s everything.

And fliers whose names resemble or match those on the government’s no-fly list, which officials use to ground air passengers, won’t catch a break at the check-in counter as long as the Bush administration’s Secure Flight initiative goes unfunded, the Homeland Security Department’s screening chief said today. The administration has requested $74 million for the program for fiscal year 2008.

The Transportation Security Administration’s no-fly list, which lists only people suspected of being a threat to commercial aviation, is a smaller version of the Terrorist Screening Center’s (TSC) national watch list, a database of more than 800,000 records on 300,000 people, including their names and aliases.

A major problem with the current system is airline rather than government employees are responsible for initially screening travelers at check-in, said Kathleen Kraninger, DHS’ director of screening coordination, at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee. Under Secure Flight, TSA would take over the entire airport screening process.

Furthermore, although TSA issues the no-fly list to all airlines, differences in their technologies and systems mean that even if a passenger is cleared by one airline, he or she could be flagged by another, Kraninger testified.

She added that she is confident Secure Flight addresses the privacy concerns that grounded the agency’s previous edition in February 2006 after the Government Accountability Office and privacy groups criticized the program for violating privacy laws.

DHS components and other federal agencies receive different watch lists from TSC depending on their screening needs. If a traveler’s name is believed to match a name on the Terrorist Watch List, the traveler is further screened.

The watch lists are used to check for name matches to the records on the Terrorist Watch List and if an agency suspects that there is a match the Terrorist Screening Center is contacted.

As of this year, people who believe they have wrongly been placed on the no-fly list or are routinely stopped for checks at the airport can seek redress using the department’s new Traveler Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP). Since the system came online in February, 7,400 of 16,000 redress requests have been adjudicated, said DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in a Nov. 7 letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

But even travelers who have been cleared as safe to fly by DHS with TSC recommendation have no guarantee that they will not be stopped if they have the same name as someone the government thinks is a threat.

“We cannot promise that an individual that goes through the redress process will never be secondarily screened again,” Kraninger said.

The process will get smoother when the government fully takes over the screening process, she said.

Under the redress system, travelers who file complaints may never find out if they were placed on an all-clear list or had their names removed from TSC’s list. Instead, for security reasons, DHS issues a carefully worded letter letting the passengers know that the issue has been resolved.

The average time to adjudicate a request is 44 days from when it enters the DHS TRIP system — the agency says it hopes to cut that to 30 days.

Kraninger also testified that DHS is ready to begin the operational testing of the Secure Flight system and if funding is appropriated soon expects it will come online sometime next year.

TSA has extended the deadline for public comments on Secure Flight to Nov. 21.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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