Delay in passenger-screening system aggravates senator

Privacy concerns have indefinitely derailed Bush administration efforts to implement a computer system for pre-screening airline passengers, a senior official said Tuesday. But a key senator took issue with the delay.

Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Homeland Security Department, said the department is working with the White House on how to proceed with the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-screening program (CAPPS II). Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, he said no testing has been done yet and after the hearing could not give a timeline for its completion.

Several senators wary of the expected heavy travel this summer highlighted the need for new technologies to streamline airport security. Hutchinson described Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) "war-room mentality" in efforts to prepare for the heaviest air travel season since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We need to be more aggressive in the use of technology," said committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. He cited the need to speed the passenger screening process and reduce costs.

The administration is working to upgrade the existing system for scanning passenger information before flights depart to the United States. Hutchinson said that because domestic and international passengers would not be expected to voluntarily provide their information, it must be mandated.

"As we think through the right way to get to that data for testing, we are evaluating the full system as to what security measures can be put into place ... whether the CAPPS II system should be modified in any way," he said after the hearing.

McCain called the progress on CAPPS II "very disappointing." He said the program is "way behind schedule and significant details have yet to be developed," and that means the nation continues to rely on the "existing outdated CAPPS system that failed to catch the terrorists."

"If CAPPS II cannot be implemented, TSA must come up with some sort of system to facilitate a preliminary screening regime so that all the stress of screening is not focused on the passenger checkpoints," McCain said. The chairman stopped short of pressing Hutchinson for details on the delay, however.

In a second panel, the Air Transport Association of American (ATA) warned that CAPPS II could have a negative impact on the public's use of commercial aviation if privacy issues are not resolved properly. ATA suggested that the system's scope be narrowed to potential terrorists and not criminals, and said it would impose "substantial" requirements on passengers, airlines and ticket reservation and distribution entities.

In his testimony, Hutchinson described wide-ranging efforts to develop new systems and technologies. He highlighted new investments in technology research and development but echoed the airline industry view that technology to defend airplanes against shoulder-fired missiles should not be implemented too quickly.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., accused the department of "foot-dragging" on the issue.

Hutchinson also denied that there are bureaucratic "turf" problems within the department despite the various backgrounds of the existing agencies moved into the department.