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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.