Secure Flight struggles to get off the ground

A federal airline passenger screening program slated to go into effect for a limited number of airlines this month is floundering'unable to define what it will do and how it will operate, according to a report released this week by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General.

The Secure Flight program is a system in which passenger names are checked against a consolidated terrorist watch list from the Terrorist Screening Center, a multiagency effort administered by the FBI. Secure Flight is sponsored by the Transportation Security Administration.

Secure Flight has been in development for more than a year, but when the audit was completed in August, the program still had several major undefined parameters, the IG said.

'Specifically, the Terrorist Screening Center does not know when Secure Flight will start, the volume of inquiries expected and the resulting number of resources required to respond, the quality of data it will have to analyze, and the specific details of the phased-in approach for taking the program from 'pre-operational testing' in September 2005 to full operational capability in FY2007,' the IG wrote.

TSA has repeatedly adjusted the implementation date for Secure Flight, from April to August, and most recently to September. As of July 31, the agency was unsure how many airlines would participate in the program's initial phase.

'This shifting of critical milestones has affected the screening center's ability to adequately plan for its role in the Secure Flight program,' the report said.

For example, the screening center has been unable to adequately project its workforce requirements to cope with the expanded workload when Secure Flight goes into effect, the report said. The screening center is spending roughly $64 million in fiscal 2005 to support Secure Flight, with an additional $13 million for indirect support of the program.

The IG's report, which was modified to remove sensitive information so it could be publicly released, describes a scenario in which TSA and the screening center have appeared to be at odds in developing Secure Flight.

For example, the report said it initially appeared that TSA did not plan for the screening center to be directly involved in the Secure Flight screening process. The center's only role would be to forward the watch list information.

'However, according to terrorist screening center officials, TSA's plan did not account for having to communicate the results of the Secure Flight matches to the law enforcement agencies responsible for responding to hits against the watch list,' the report said. In addition, 'TSA neglected to plan for the complex process of record additions, deletions and modifications made to the Terrorist Screening Data Base on a continual basis.'

Once there was agreement about the screening center's role in helping to develop Secure Flight, 'many of the processes that TSA had already developed had to be redesigned and retooled,' the report said.

The delays in implementing Secure Flight are partly because of the negative reviews it has received from Congress and the Government Accountability Office over TSA's failure to protect privacy and due process rights. Secure Flight is supposed to be an improvement over TSA's current screening programs, now conducted for 65 airlines carrying more than 1.8 million passengers a day. That screening is required at about 450 airports.

Critics of Secure Flight say the latest findings indicate that the program is poorly designed and should not become operational until the problems are ironed out.

'TSA should not rush to launch Secure Flight when even its partner organization, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, believes TSA has not adequately designed the program. Such a stunning lack of interagency coordination must be resolved before TSA moves forward,' Timothy Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Earlier this year, a General Accounting Office report concluded that Secure Flight faced uncertainties in schedule, cost, functionality and privacy impact.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer for Government Computer News' sister publication, Washington Technology.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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