Just weeks after congressional investigators found that officials in charge of a new airline passenger-screening system violated a federal privacy law, the Department of Homeland Security is pushing Congress to reduce oversight of the program and to allow it to use commercial databases to screen for terrorists.
Changes proposed to next year's homeland security funding bill would allow the controversial Secure Flight program to use background checks and profiling to help determine if an airline passenger is a terrorist despite not being on a terror watch list.
Additionally, the proposed changes would permit Secure Flight to be rolled out to the nation's airports after Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff certifies the program will be effective and not overly invasive. The current bill requires independent congressional investigators to make that determination.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, said in March that Secure Flight had yet to pass nine out of 10 tests required for certification.
However, Lee Tien, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney, was surprised to learn that Homeland Security officials were looking to loosen restrictions so soon after Secure Flight was found to have violated federal law by secretly collecting data on 250,000 Americans during its test phase.
"It boggles the mind that after you start with a strong position against commercial data and then you have the agency caught red-handed doing things it said it would not do -- that the GAO has said were unlawful -- then for Congress to say, 'Oh, that doesn't matter, in fact, you can do it some more if you explain it,'" Tien said. "That doesn't make any sense if you care about privacy."
CAPPS II, an earlier version of the Secure Flight project, was killed off in large part over criticism of the program's intention to profile and color-code passengers.
However, Justin Oberman, the head of Secure Flight, told the Associated Press in July that he eventually wanted to use commercial data to identify sleeper terrorists among the 1.4 million people who fly daily in the United States.
The T-S-A is looking at a couple of other suggestions, as well.
One reduces patdown searches and the other calls for giving some passengers special treatment. The exemptions would apply to such travelers as federal judges, federal lawmakers, governors and people with high-level security clearances.