TSA may begin air passenger background checks in 2009

The Homeland Security Department plans to begin a controversial airline passenger screening program as early as January -- as long as it can win over skeptical lawmakers.

The department's Transportation Security Administration plans to take over the responsibility for screening passengers against government terrorist watch lists beginning in 2009, TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told the House Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee Tuesday.

Under the Secure Flight program, TSA will review key information on each airline passenger -- such as name, gender, date of birth, citizenship and country of residence -- to determine if the person is on the government's so called no-fly list or a "selectee" list, which requires the traveler to go through additional screening measures before boarding.

Individual airlines now check passenger names against the lists, a process that has seen innocent U.S. citizens, including lawmakers, detained because their names appeared on one of the lists. But the 9/11 Commission recommended the government take over the screening and Congress mandated the department do so under a 2004 law.

The department has been prevented from beginning Secure Flight until it satisfies several GAO recommendations deemed critical to the program's successful operation.

Critics, including privacy advocates and lawmakers, want to be sure TSA has adequate safeguards in place to protect people's personally identifiable information and does not use the information for racial profiling purposes.

"It is back on track," Hawley said of Secure Flight.

He said TSA plans to issue a final rule for the program this summer.

"We have taken the time to build the Secure Flight program right," he told the subcommittee. "We have built a program with the operational requirements necessary to enhance aviation security while protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the traveling public."

Cathleen Berrick, GAO's director of homeland security and justice issues, testified that TSA has made significant progress on Secure Flight. But she cautioned the agency still lags in several areas.

Berrick said TSA had not developed proper cost and schedule estimates for the program; fully implemented a plan to manage risk; adequately conducted testing; or ensured that information technology requirements are fully met.

"We are continuing to assess TSA's efforts in developing and implementing Secure Flight, which, according to TSA's planned schedule, will allow the agency to fully assume the watch list matching function from air carriers in fiscal year 2010," she said.

On another front, Hawley disputed recent reports that less than 1 percent of about 28,000 daily commercial flights in the United States have a federal air marshal aboard for protection.

He said the number is "absolutely wrong by an order of magnitude" but remains classified.

Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told Hawley she wants to meet with rank-and-file air marshals. She said she wants Hawley to allow them to speak openly about their concerns.

Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department's former inspector general, said he hoped that Hawley was correct that the percentage of air marshals on flights is greater than 1 percent. He said the subcommittee should verify Hawley's claim or have the department's current inspector general conduct a classified report.

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