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Airline Passenger Screening in US Comes Under Scrutiny - 2004-03-18


A new system to screen airline passengers and identify security risks was the subject of a congressional subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. Critics say the system, which has been developed by the Transportation Security Administration, has several flaws, including giving too much personal information to the government.

Security was tight, the room was packed, the meeting ran long, and no one left happy. The acting head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Admiral David Stone, faced questions from several members of the House of Representatives who wanted to know why the airline security system is so far behind in development.

Republican subcommittee chairman John Mica made it clear he is not satisfied with America's airline security, which, in its most famous failure, allowed 19 hijackers to take over four planes on September 11, 2001.

"We currently have in place what I call a Las Vegas roulette passenger profiling and screening system, whose chances of detecting a terrorist are less than finding a needle in a haystack," he said. "There is no question that the system we have in place now clearly needs to be changed."

After the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration wanted to put airline screening under government control, making extensive use of government records as well as private ones to classify passengers into three categories: low-risk, elevated-risk, and terrorist threat. But efforts to implement this program, known as CAPPS 2 (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening), are at a standstill. Officals at the Transportation Safety Administration say that's because airlines won't release passenger data so the program can be tested.

In addition to the airline industry, the program has also come under criticism from civil rights advocates. Washington, D.C., Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton echoed those concerns when she told the committee that the CAPPS 2 program would give the government too much personal information.

"The problems range from the most basic problem any American will have, which is 'what are you going to do with my data? What are you doing with my business? What are you going to do with my information?' You have to begin with privacy issues that remain unaddressed," she said.

She also pointed out there is yet no protocol for victims of mistaken identity to clear their names in the system. Bill Pascrell (Democrat - New Jersey) noted that the system has limited use unless foreign governments agree to participate.

"It's frustrating that CAPPS 2 would not be deployed overseas," he said. "I know you will have access to passenger data from European countries, but I can't see the usefulness of a system unless Europeans make it seamless with their data."

Admiral Stone defended the CAPPS 2 program but also said his agency welcomes the scrutiny the program is under "because we understand the importance of getting it right," he added. "The delays in testing have not caused us to waver in our commitment to this program. I am confident we will move CAPPS 2 forward in a thoughtful manner and provide the American people with a program they will be proud of, one in which their freedoms are preserved, and our country is better protected against terrorism."

After several hours of discussion, the hearing adjourned without a clear timetable established for the next stages of CAPPS 2, which means that arguments over airline security in the United States will continue for some time to come.