Traveler screening to continue despite public outcry

The Homeland Security Department plans to continue using a controversial program to screen all travelers to and from the United States, despite mounting calls that the program be suspended until Congress and the public have more time to investigate it.

Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen on Monday said the department will not suspend its use of the Automated Targeting System, which aggregates information on people traveling to and from the United States by land, air and sea, including U.S. citizens.

The program assigns terror risk scores to people identified as posing a threat to U.S. national security. Records on travelers can be kept for 40 years. The program was originally developed by the Customs Service to screen cargo in the 1990s.

But by the mid-1990s, it also was being used to screen airline passengers and has expanded in use by Homeland Security since the department was created almost four years ago, Agen said.

"What is expected of the department is to be able to use data that is collected," he said. "It is the department's job to ascertain if there is a high risk from cargo or a traveler headed to the United States to protect us from an attack."

Last month, the department posted a notice giving the public until Monday to comment on the system. "The notice was put out so that the public was aware of the screening procedures that the department has," Agen said.

Almost 50 comments had been received from individuals and organizations by this afternoon, the majority of which expressed opposition to the program.

Critics include former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who runs the consulting firm Liberty Strategies. He said the program "not only constitutes a highly intrusive and unconstitutional evidence-gathering system on law-abiding citizens, but it is neither an effective nor cost-efficient way to identify terrorists attempting to use the airlines to carry out terrorist acts. It should be scrapped."

Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., plans to examine the program when he takes over the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, according to an aide. "New technologies make data banks more powerful and more useful than they have ever been before," Leahy said. "They have a place in our security regimen. But powerful tools like this are easy to abuse and are prone to mistakes."

Senate Homeland Security Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said he also is examining the program. The subcommittee is assessing the tool for air passengers and U.S.-bound cargo, he said. "We must ensure that this program is indeed working to prevent terrorism, while at the same time safeguarding the privacy of air travelers."

Diverse groups from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Business Travel Coalition, a group that advocates on behalf of corporate travelers, said the program should be abandoned.

Department observers and privacy watchdogs "were stunned to learn of [the department's] intentions to near-secretly implement such a massively intrusive program behind the backs of Congress and the public," the Business Travel Coalition wrote.

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