Public interest group challenges FBI over terrorist screening

As the deadline for public comments on a revised screening system for airline passengers nears, a public-interest group is demanding disclosure of information on the system, with the goal of fostering more informed commentary.

But it is unclear whether the information on the system known as Secure Flight will be disclosed in time for potential critics to react to in their letters to the Transportation Security Administration.

The deadline for comments on how to screen passengers is a week from Monday. Pre-implementation tests for the system are scheduled to begin before the end of the year, according to TSA. The tests will involve travel information on passengers from June 2004, which airlines must give to TSA, as well as data contained in commercial databases and information in the FBI's terrorist screening database.

On Sept. 20, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records about how the FBI intends to protect the privacy of travelers as it maintains records in its terrorist-screening database. Since then, the FBI and EPIC have been fighting over the extent of access EPIC should have to such data and how quickly the FBI must produce the records.

Last Tuesday, attorneys for EPIC filed a motion with the federal district court for the District of Columbia to compel the FBI to disclose the information on an expedited basis. The FBI has agreed and must produce the information within 20 days. EPIC attorneys plan to file another motion this week to try to compel the FBI to produce the information before the deadline.

"Any delay in the disclosure of these documents will compromise the ability of plaintiff and the public at large to submit informed and meaningful comments," EPIC's attorneys wrote in the motion filed last week.

TSA published a notice on Secure Flight in the Federal Register on Sept. 24. The notice describes how TSA intends to test the system and which databases it intends to use to perform the screening. But the notice provided little detail about the databases themselves.

TSA intends to pre-screen airline passengers by running records through the FBI's watch lists. EPIC staff counsel Marcia Hofmann said her group has asked the agency for more information on how it plans to maintain the watch-list database because the public does not know how people are placed on the lists, how the FBI maintains the lists or the procedures that the FBI follow in protecting the privacy of individuals.

Released by the Justice Department earlier this month, after a separate FOIA request from the American Civil Liberties Union, internal FBI memos indicate confusion within the agency on the differences between the FBI terrorism watch list and TSA's "no fly" list.

The ACLU said that in one memo, an agent complained, "Despite my best efforts, the TSA just motors along and I and the agents are being whipped around the flagpole trying to do the right thing." The FBI did not return calls by press time.

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