Travel Workers to Be Checked Against Watch Lists

Anyone who works at an airport or aboard a cruise ship will have his identity checked against government watch lists (search), just like commercial airline passengers.

The change, included in the intelligence bill passed by Congress this week, means hundreds of thousands of additional names will be compared with those on two lists — one for people suspected of terrorism, the other for people the government says require additional scrutiny for some other reason.

Cruise passengers, but not crews, already are checked against the lists within 15 minutes of a ship's departure. Once President Bush signs the bill into law, it will require passengers and crews to be checked before the ship sets sail. The procedures must start within six months after the bill becomes law.

Supporters say the changes add another layer of security for the traveling public, but critics of the lists contend they provide greater opportunity for innocent people to be mistakenly branded.

The lists are wrapped in secrecy. The government doesn't disclose criteria for placing people on them, how many names are listed or any of the identities.

In a number of well-publicized incidents, people with names similar to others on the lists were stopped from boarding planes. One that happened to is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

"To expand the use of something that's already so error-prone is shocking," said Marcia Hofmann, attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group.

There's no formal procedure for people to correct misinformation that caused their names to be added to the lists. The intelligence bill (search) orders the Homeland Security Department to establish procedures for names to be removed as well as added.

The bill also requires the newly created Director of National Intelligence to set standards for placing people on the list and to report those criteria to Congress.

Tim Edgar, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, is skeptical.

"The government is more effective and efficient at getting people on the watch list than off it," he said.

Sen. Bill Nelson, who sponsored the cruise ship provision, said as many as 5,000 passengers and 1,500 crew members travel on each ship.

"What you have is a floating city of thousands of people," said Nelson, D-Fla. "You cannot be too cautious."

Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, said the change could delay ship departures if it isn't handled well.

"We have no objection to ensuring that the government has a chance to properly vet individual's names, but we hope that is not done in a redundant manner," he said.

The bill also orders airport workers to be checked against the terrorist watch list before they are allowed unescorted beyond security checkpoints or on the tarmac. That includes at least tens of thousands of restaurant workers, concession clerks, cleaners, caterers and delivery people.

Individuals also are required in the bill to be screened against watch lists "before being certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration."

"We're not sure exactly what that means," said FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler.

The Federal Aviation Administration already checks a host of people against the lists — pilots, flight instructors, mechanics, repairmen, air traffic controllers, flight attendants — before it issues certificates allowing them to perform those functions.

Trexler said it's unclear whether the bill also covers FAA representatives, called "designees," who administer flight tests, inspect repair work, give physical exams to pilots and approve designs for aircraft parts. The designee program comprises 13,400 people and 180 organizations.

Congress set no deadline for airport workers or people certified by the FAA to be checked.

Though lawmakers don't require railroad workers or passengers to be screened against the lists, they did order the Homeland Security Department's privacy officer to write a report on "the implications of applying those lists to other modes of transportation."

Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington University Law School, predicts that the government will continue to expand the use of watch lists.

"The government, when it has the data, will try to use it for any purpose of the day that it wants to use it for," Solove said.

Another provision requires the Transportation Security Administration to set standards by March 31 for biometric technology that can be used by airports to control access to sensitive areas.

House Transportation aviation subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said the Homeland Security Department has dithered in deciding on what kind of biometric identifier should be adopted — fingerprint or eye scan, for example — as well as the technical requirements.

"It forces them to finally act," Mica said.