Opposition to DHS traveler screening program mounts

Opposition to a Homeland Security Department program that screens travelers entering the United States continues to grow and now includes international travel associations that are calling for the program to be suspended.

Outrage has continued to mount since Homeland Security posted a notice on the automated targeting system in the Federal Register last month The notice said the system is used for risk assessments on travelers coming into the country by land, sea and air. Opponents claim that the department kept details of the program hidden from the public for years.

"Privacy is not a niche issue," said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's not a liberal issue; it's not a conservative issue; it's not a special interest."

In the latest twist, international travel associations have signed a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The U.S.-based Business Travel Coalition wrote the letter and has spearheaded a campaign to get organizations to endorse it.

"We are deeply concerned that such a far-reaching and invasive screening of millions of business travelers entering and exiting the U.S. could do significant personal harm to them, and reduce the productivity of the organizations that field business travelers," states the letter, which likely will be sent to Chertoff at the end of this week.

Signatories so far include the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, Guild of Travel Management Companies, Institute of Travel Management and the Netherlands Association of Travel Management. Three U.S.-based travel organizations also have signed the letter, along with 32 companies, some of which are international.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said the program appears to closely resemble an airline passenger-screening program known as CAPPS II that was killed due to public and congressional outrage.

"It's a ham-handed, tone-deaf approach to security that sunk CAPPS II and continues to get them in trouble," Mitchell said. "The feeling it leaves people is that if the Department of Homeland Security is going to behave like this in its infant years, what's it going to behave like when it becomes an adult?"

Chertoff offered a strong defense of the program in an interview with CongressDaily. "To hear people are outraged baffles me," he said. "I totally reject that this has been kept secret." He said the program is a critical tool for U.S. border agents to protect the country.

The department, however, has extended the time for public comment until Dec. 29.

Meanwhile, a debate has erupted over whether the program violates a section of the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill that prohibits using funds "to develop or test algorithms assigning risk to passengers" whose names are not on government watch lists.

"Clearly the law prohibits testing or developing computer programs" like the automated targeting system, said House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking Democrat Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn. But A Homeland Security spokesman said the department believes the prohibition only applies to another traveler screening program called Secure Flight.

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