Passenger screening programs come under fire

GAO and industry representatives say programs are poorly managed and likely to be ineffective.

The Government Accountability Office and the airline industry slammed the Transportation Security Administration in a congressional hearing on the agency's two main passenger-screening programs.

TSA has made progress on Secure Flight, which is designed to screen out terrorists from airline passengers, but management problems persist, said Cathleen Berrick, director of homeland security and justice at GAO.

In its rush to push out Secure Flight, TSA has neglected to define systems requirements for Secure Flight or follow its own or industry best practices for information technology systems development, Berrick said.

“It’s not clear what Secure Flight capabilities will be delivered and at what cost,” she said. Berrick spoke on one of two panels that discussed Secure Flight and Registered Traveler, TSA’s voluntary credentialing program, with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

TSA has not developed a cost-benefit analysis or passenger privacy notices for Secure Flight, so it is impossible to know how cost-effective the program is or how well it will protect travelers’ privacy, Berrick said. Likewise, the agency must develop a redress process for people erroneously tagged as threats, Berrick said.

Registered Traveler drew similarly harsh criticism.

James May, president and chief executive officer of the Air Transport Association of America, called for TSA to scrap Registered Traveler, TSA’s program that allows airline passengers to undergo background checks in return for speedier passage through security checkpoints.

Security in airports has improved to the point where the need for a Registered Traveler program as originally envisioned no longer exists, May said. “We need to improve the process for all passengers, not just a select few,” he said.

Besides, airlines have already spent $4 billion to $5 billion on passenger screening programs since 2002 with no results, May said. “I don’t want to see another airline pay for yet another failed program that doesn’t work for everybody,” he said.

“Simply put, it’s time to pull the plug” on both programs, said Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel for privacy rights at the American Civil Liberties Union. The programs will not definitively stop terrorists, but they pose real threats to passengers’ civil liberties, he said.

But the programs received support from panelists and committee members. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said Secure Flight “has the potential for substantial security benefits. The problem is that it is not proven yet whether it will do so.”

TSA needs to stop work on Secure Flight and needs to set new baselines for development and performance, Inouye said. DHS must ensure that TSA follows best practices, he said.

Terrorists will exploit any screening system, said Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives. The federal government must develop a system to find dangerous people, he said, and keep them from getting near planes in the first place – the purpose of Secure Flight.

Secure Flight and Registered Traveler are useful programs because they increase the productivity and predictability of travel, said Bill Connors, executive director and chief operating officer at the National Business Travel Association.

Airlines must provide 34 different datasets to seven federal screening programs, May said. TSA needs to adopt new technologies and federal agencies must adopt a simple, single template for data, May said. “We are being inundated with data requests,” he said.

TSA is finally listening to industry and passenger complaints, May said. The agency now needs effective redress procedures and an accurate no-fly list, he said.

Secure Flight must use “clean, clear, consolidated and current” data and comply with the 10 operational requirements that GAO set out for it in March 2005, Connors said.

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