Congress Wants Stricter Oversight of TSA

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Lawmakers are looking to put more checks on the Transportation Security Administration's long-running effort to come up with a new way to conduct background checks on airline passengers.

The project, Secure Flight (search), is supposed to allow the government to take over from the airlines the daily duty of checking about 1.8 million air travelers' names against terrorist watch lists.

That goal has proven elusive. Since work began on it shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Secure Flight has been hampered by concerns about privacy and management.

As a result, Congress has ordered an unusual amount of scrutiny over the project. Twice lawmakers have prohibited the Transportation Security Administration from going live with Secure Flight until the Government Accountability Office reports that it meets several conditions.

Those include assurances that the system is accurate, that the technology ensures privacy, that safeguards exist to prevent abuse, and that passengers who think they were mistakenly identified as a threat have some recourse.

The GAO reported that TSA failed to meet most of those criteria in February 2004 and in March.

Congress next week is expected to approve the Homeland Security spending bill. House-Senate negotiators have worked out a compromise that includes a ban on spending for Secure Flight — except for testing — until the GAO signs off on 10 criteria, according to Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of a subcommittee that oversees Homeland Security spending.

They also want to forbid the TSA from using commercial data to supplement passenger information supplied by the airlines.

The TSA has said it plans to begin implementing Secure Flight by the end of the year.

"The bill does not delay implementation," said spokeswoman Amy von Walter. "TSA will continue working closely with GAO and Congress to meet the criteria outlined for the Secure Flight program."

However, the agency's estimates of when the program would begin have consistently been wrong ever since former chief James Loy said in July 2003 that he hoped it could be implemented in July 2004.

Privacy advocates have long denounced Secure Flight as a program to spy on Americans. More recently they've questioned whether the project could ever even work, as it has sputtered along for years and cost tens of millions of dollars with few tangible results.

"This program is turning into the supercolliding superconductor of Homeland Security," said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Tim Sparapani (search), referring to the costly government project that was ultimately killed. "It's a boondoggle and a black hole."

A Justice Department inspector general report released in July pointed out, for example, that the TSA failed to plan for changes in the terrorist watch lists.