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Years after 9/11, passenger screening system still grounded
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David Stone, acting director of the Transportation Security Administration, was in the Twin Cities recently to mark the one year anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security. A new computerized passenger screening system was not on the agency's list of accomplishments. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
When the public learned this year that Northwest Airlines once gave passenger data to a government agency, it added heat to the national debate over a new airline passenger screening system. Testing and implementing the system is shaping up as one of the great homeland security challenges. Observers wonder why, more than two years after 9/11, passenger screening has barely pulled away from the gate.

(First of a two-part series)

St. Paul, Minn. — Cindy Sanders and Jennifer Sharp are co-workers, both heading to Atlanta, both sharing the same bench in Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport. And they've both put their names, addresses and other routine travel information in the hands of the airline. But when it comes to how the airline and the government use that information, they're miles apart.

"It doesn't bother me that they know where I'm going, what I'm doing, because I don't feel like I'm doing anything (wrong), where they're going to use that information," says Sanders.

For her, the goal is what matters most.

"To get terrorists and people who are going to harm the rest of society and the rest of us, and me, personally."

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Image Same bench, different opinions

"So weed them out," she says. "Get them."

Sharp says she does care.

"I like to know what they're doing with the information," she says. "As long as we're safe, I think that's important. But it's like, what are you doing with this information?"

This airport-bench debate, on a much larger scale, is why the next-generation passenger screening program, known as CAPPS II, has yet to get off the ground. CAPPS stands for Computer Assisted Passenger PreScreening.

The current program, CAPPS I, looks for simple and common cues like a one-way ticket. Critics say it would be easy to fool, and the only way skies remain safe is that so many people receive a detailed physical search.

The Bush administration says the new system would harness massive computing power not only to speed up the process, but to make it much less likely terrorists like the 9/11 hijackers get near an airplane.

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Image David Stone, acting TSA director

While other measures such as federal air marshals and checked-bag screening have expanded, even basic testing of the main CAPPS II system is delayed indefinitely. At the moment, CAPPS II is stuck in limbo. Airlines and some lawmakers say they won't allow testing until the system is ready. Homeland security officials say the system won't be ready until they can test it.

The director of the Transportation Security Administration or TSA, former Navy Adm. David Stone, recently visited Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to mark the one-year anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security. From the podium, Stone broke down the department's motto -- "Preserving our Freedoms, Protecting our Nation." These days the department is emphasizing the first half -- a way of saying they're sensitive to privacy and other civil liberties.

"'Preserving our freedoms' is the first sentence for a good reason, because that's why we serve," Stone said. "That liberty that we cherish here really is what it's all about."

With today's system, Stone says about one in six travelers gets a detailed security screening by TSA agents. The CAPPS II goal is to shrink that to one in 30, using a two-step process.

Step one is verifying identity. This is the part that directly uses passenger information. Stone says name, address, maybe credit card number -- the same information you might give to have a pizza delivered -- will be authenticated for every passenger, to keep people from boarding a plane under a false identity.

Stone described step two.

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Image Faster and safer trips?

"Now that we've verified your ID, we'll run that against known terrorist databases and be able to see if you should be a candidate for secondary screening, or whether you should just go through the normal screening process," Stone said. "I don't find that to be something that -- when it's explained to people -- that they think is unreasonable."

Stone says most opposition to CAPPS II comes from those who don't understand how it works. The NAACP, for example, has said the system is likely to flag people who order an Islamic meal, have a bad credit score or have recently moved. But under the system as currently designed, only a recent change of address might directly trigger additional screening.

Even as the TSA tries to explain the plan to the general public, one big and necessary partner -- the airline industry -- has withdrawn into a huddle. First Delta, then jetBlue, and now Northwest have been stung by their association with government screening research. Through an industry trade group, the Air Transport Association, the airlines are deciding their conditions for joining in CAPPS II testing.

"Airlines have an enlightened self-interest not to tick passengers off," says Doug Wills, a spokesman for the ATA. "If passengers feel that their privacy rights are being violated by the CAPPS II program, that is going to end up alienating a lot of fliers."

Wills says the ATA does not oppose CAPPS II, but airlines want transparency in the system. Passengers should have a clear idea of who receives the information, and what they do with it, he says. They also want a prompt way for passengers to fix wrong information that might place them on a watch list.

What happens to a business traveler who consequently misses scheduled flights? Who would be responsible for the added cost of thousands of dollars for walk-up fares?
- Kevin Mitchell, Business Travelers Coalition

Some say the industry's renewed devotion to passenger privacy is more immediately about saving face and saving money. Edward Hasbrouck is a consumer advocate and travel agent who has been a watchdog for passenger screening issues.

"I think what the airlines are saying is that they can't cooperate voluntarily, so they're asking the government to order them to cooperate -- so that they can then tell their passengers, 'Well, we're only doing it because the government tells us to,'" says Hasbrouck. "The other issue in those (ATA) meetings has been the desire of the airlines to get reimbursed for their costs."

CAPPS II will require an estimated $400 million from taxpayers by 2008. But opponents say it may cost the U.S. travel industry another $1 billion, to retool the nation's reservations systems to handle this new stream of information. Some of this may be passed on to travelers in the form of higher fares.

Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travelers Coalition wondered on a recent conference call who would be stuck with the tab for travelers incorrectly flagged as possible risks.

"What happens to a business traveler who consequently misses scheduled flights?" Mitchell asks. "Who would be responsible for the added cost of thousands of dollars for walk-up fares for subsequently scheduled flights?"

In the past, questions of unfunded security mandates have sometimes been handled by Congress after the fact -- as when the nation's travel industry received a $2.5 billion security reimbursement this past summer.

Lawmakers may be less than eager to give more money for CAPPS II right now. A recent report from Congress' General Accounting Office says CAPPS II, in its current form, falls short in terms of transparency and protecting data from theft. The report also says CAPPS II does not do enough to help people falsely flagged as risks to fix the problem.

Caution about CAPPS II crosses party lines. U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, DFL-Minn., called for the GAO report. And former Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia joined him in announcing its findings.

"This really cries out for Congress to step up and say, 'This program has more problems than we had even initially anticipated. There is no way that it can properly be implemented at this time,'" Barr says.

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield, on the other hand, says the report creates all the more reason to forge ahead.

"They basically gave us a report card of incomplete -- which we fully expected since we haven't been able to conduct the testing, which will address most of the issues they raised," Hatfield says.

Even if the TSA can address the functional objections to CAPPS II, it will have a much harder time quieting the theoretical ones. To some opponents, the real danger is not what CAPPS II might do right now, but where it might lead.

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