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Frustrations raised over delays in frequent traveler program

Transportation Security Administration chief says the agency supports the program, but has to focus on other priorities.

Members of a House Homeland Security subcommittee and private-sector proponents of the Registered Traveler program expressed frustration Tuesday that the widely touted effort to ease airport security delays for frequent flyers has made so little progress.

One provider of the service and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., blamed bureaucratic obstacles put up by the Transportation Security Administration for preventing the program from expanding or allowing program participants to take advantage of faster security screening.

"Perhaps the folks in charge there don't want to see a private-sector program flourish while those government programs remain unfulfilled," said Steven Brill, chairman of CLEAR-Verified Identity Pass Inc., which operates Registered Traveler programs at six major airports.

"I don't think there is anything in this testimony to give this committee or the industry any hope that you will ever approve this program," Norton told TSA administrator Kip Hawley.

Hawley said TSA supported the program, but insisted that it "was not a security program" and his agency had to put its priorities on providing real security to the traveling public.

Homeland Security Transportation Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, supported the program as a "compromise between the goal of security and the freedom to travel" and a way for TSA to "narrow its pool of potential problems" by prescreening a group of travelers.

"The concept of the RT program, administered in the correct way, could revolutionize the way security is administered," Jackson Lee said in her opening remarks.

Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a statement that the program, "if implemented correctly, has the potential to dramatically improve security for all airline travelers by allowing frequent travelers to get through the system more quickly," reducing the time for others going through security screening.

The Registered Traveler program requires frequent flyers to submit to a background screening and submission of biometric identification data, such as fingerprints or iris scan.

They then receive a biometric identification card, which when screened at a Registered Traveler kiosk produces a receipt that supposedly allows them to bypass normal TSA screening. The program is paid for by the applicants.

Brill, Norton and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., complained that TSA in most cases has required Registered Traveler card holders to go through the usual screening and to show a photo ID like normal travelers.

Brill complained that TSA has changed its position on the program repeatedly, has refused to complete tests of CLEAR's technology and has made it difficult to expand. He said the firm had equipment that could check shoes for dangerous metal or explosives without being removed and can detect explosive residue on a person's fingers, but TSA would not certify it.

Hawley argued that the background screening for Registered Traveler only checked that the applicant was not on the terrorist watch list and said the screening was not a safeguard against the "clean-skin terrorist," or a person with no known terrorist background who becomes a threat, such as the men recently arrested in England and Ireland.

"We need many layers of security to mitigate the risk of defeating one ... After prioritizing our security initiatives based on risk, TSA decided that taxpayers' resources are best applied to more critical needs than RT," he said.