Bush administration urged to delay launch of passenger screening system

The top Democrat on a House Homeland Security subcommittee joined a leading civil-liberties organization Thursday in calling on the Bush administration to delay the summer launch of a system to screen airline passengers because they said the system is not ready.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California said they expect a report from the Government Accountability Office, which is scheduled to be released Monday, to say that the system being developed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will not meet the criteria established for it under a fiscal 2005 appropriations law.

The law that funds the Homeland Security Department outlined 10 different criteria the screening program must meet before it receives the funding to become operational. The criteria include requirements that TSA establish a system to allow passengers to appeal decisions barring them from flying and to correct errors about themselves.

"From what I've heard, the TSA has not met the criteria," said Sanchez, the ranking Democrat on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity. "The criteria was supposed to be met before the TSA moved forward with the project."

Sanchez said she has received many complaints from her constituents who travel frequently and are constantly stopped by airport screeners, even after they are cleared the first time. One of her constituents was held for five hours, she said.

Sanchez and the ACLU issued their call because TSA said earlier this year that it plans to launch the system in conjunction with two airlines this August.

Sanchez said that unlike the civil-liberties advocates, she supports the screening but would prefer that TSA get the system right before it is launched. Otherwise, the system could waste time and money, while a botched system would strain an already overburdened department.

"I think that the screening programs are important," she said. "They are a way for us to help determine whether people should be on a flight. When they work well, they are going to be a very powerful tool ... for protecting the public."

If the administration does go forward with the program this summer, its decision would violate the law, said Timothy Sparapani, a legislative counsel for the ACLU.

Officials from Homeland Security did not return calls for comment by press time and GAO said it could not comment on the report until it is publicly issued Monday.

It is not clear whether the administration is pushing to go forward with Secure Flight. In its fiscal 2006 budget request, the administration said TSA should not go forward unless GAO verifies that the system meets conditions similar to those in the law.

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