WASHINGTON – Two days before the seven-year anniversary of the Sept. 11,2001,terrorist attacks,a House committee asked the Department of Homeland Security what it has done to reduce the number of airline passengers misidentified as terror suspects.
In 2003,terrorist watch lists compiled by the FBI,the CIA and other agencies were consolidated into a database for airlines to use when screening passengers. Although the list holding the names of about 13,000 Americans has helped stop suspected terrorists,the list has delayed the flights of thousands of innocent passengers,including most famously,Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,D-Mass.,and children whose names are the same or similar to those of people on the watch list.
The list contains about a million names,which administration officials said corresponds to about 400,000 people.
Several members of the Committee of Homeland Security expressed frustration Tuesday with the department,saying its method for resolving individual complaints has not done enough to ease the screening process for people who have been singled out but cleared of suspicion.
The Transportation Security Agency reports the department receives about 3,600 complaints per month regarding misidentification. The department compiled a list of “cleared” individuals,but because the TSA did not specify until April how names should be compared to the watch list,airlines have been inconsistent in how they screen passengers,meaning some travelers may still be inconvenienced after getting their name on the list.
“I am struck by whether we ought to give this to some high school nerds,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton,D-D.C. She asked whether the department had looked beyond U.S. borders for a solution,noting that it is common for a person in Latin America to have the same name as many others,and that other countries must have ways of keeping track of similarly named individuals.
Greg Wellen,an assistant administrator with Transportation Security Administration,said the administration has only so much control of the watch list and how it guides security decisions. TSA receives the watch list from Homeland Security's Terror Screening Center,and it is up to each airline how to use the list to screen passengers.
“The problem we face is not an overgrown watch list with too many names or names that don't matter,” he said. “The real issue is how to match passengers' names against those very important names that are on the TSC's watch list.”
Those problems,Wellen said,will be resolved through Secure Flight,a program that will standardize airlines' use of watch list data and should reduce the number of delays related to misidentified names. Secure Flight is slated to begin in early 2009,but it may take a year to take full effect.
Because the TSA said it had limited responsibility for the names appearing on the watch list,the committee turned to TSA's parent agency,Department of Homeland Security.
“This seems to be a ‘pass the buck' situation.'” Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee,D-Texas,said to Richard Kopel,the screening center's principal deputy director. “You talk to the FBI,they're moving paper around,and I'm not sure what role you may play in trying to give the best assistance. What are you doing to ensure a cleaned-up watch list?”
Kopel said that,while the FBI is a custodian of the U.S. government's primary terror watch list,Homeland Security re-examines that list and is nearing a complete review of the list it provides airlines.
“I believe every name we have on the No Fly List is appropriately watch-listed,” Kopel said. “We supply the airlines with what,we believe,is sufficient information to make some preliminary identification.”
Rep. Yvette Clark,D-N.Y.,said too much of the hearing focused on the watch list itself,and not the larger issues of reducing the number of misidentifications and determining which of the many agencies involved should take on the responsibility.
“There is a difference between having a terrorist watch list,which we know is a necessity,and having so many false positives,” Clark said. “If an 8-year-old boy who was born around the time the (9/11) incident occurred can't travel,something is wrong.
“Someone's got to say,‘I'm going to take it upon myself to get this child cleared.'”