Homeland privacy officer to review passenger-screening system

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Wednesday told a congressional panel that the government will not implement a pilot version of a controversial program for screening airline passengers until a privacy expert examines it.

Ridge told the Senate Commerce Committee that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will not test the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System (CAPPS II) until Homeland Security's chief privacy officer has been appointed and examined the program.

"It is my intention to have this be [examined] by the privacy officer," Ridge said, responding to a question by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on why CAPPS appeared scheduled to be implemented before a privacy officer has been named.

Ridge said he has identified an individual to become chief privacy officer, "and we are just making sure all the papers are in order" before naming the person. Additionally, he said that several weeks ago TSA chief James Loy met with privacy advocates "from the political right and left" to discuss their concerns about CAPPS and procedures that TSA might implement to protect privacy before the program's implementation.

Meanwhile, committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., urged Ridge to incorporate military technologies developed for surveillance purposes into border-control efforts at the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. For example, he suggested that the department use unmanned vehicles.

Ridge said that Homeland Security takes McCain's recommendations "seriously" and that staff within the border and transportation security directorate, in conjunction with the science and technology directorate, are looking at border-control technologies and should initiate a pilot project "sometime this year."

Committee members grilled Ridge on whether the Bush administration is providing adequate funding for the Coast Guard. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said he had tried unsuccessfully to insert into an emergency spending bill for fiscal 2003 money specifically aimed at the agency to strengthen its infrastructure and personnel.

Ridge said the administration believes it is providing enough money to the Coast Guard, but he would like to work with lawmakers on reforming the process for allocating and distributing homeland security money to the states.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., asked Ridge why Wyoming received $9.78 per state resident for security purposes while New Jersey received $1.58 despite maintaining a large port and airport. "We don't think the [current] formula is appropriate for counterterrorism funding," Ridge said. "It doesn't take into consideration threats or vulnerabilities" faced by the state, "hence I think this would be the appropriate time to talk about" crafting a better formula for the grants, he said.

On airline security, Ridge said TSA continues to work on "trusted flier" program aimed at moving frequent airline travelers through the security process more quickly.