- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Transportation Security Administration plans to take over administration of the government’s terrorist “no-fly” list, its chief told lawmakers yesterday.

“In the coming days or weeks,” the TSA will roll out a program to “bring that [no-fly] list under the government umbrella so that we don’t have a list of no-fly and selectees [distributed] worldwide [to] airlines,” Adm. David Stone told the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

Experts said there are numerous technical challenges to overcome, and some expressed skepticism that the agency would be able to move as quickly as Adm. Stone promised.

The “no-fly” and “automatic selectee” lists, which bear the names of thousands of known and suspected terrorists and others thought to pose a threat to aviation, are currently distributed to airlines, who use them to check the names of those booking flights.

But the system has been plagued by controversy, partly because of the number of false positives — people with the same or similar names to those on the list. Most recently, two lawmakers, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, revealed that they had been repeatedly challenged by airline staff.

Mr. Kennedy told the Senate Judiciary Committee it took weeks to get his name cleared, and Mr. Lewis has said he still is frequently delayed, despite having received a letter from the TSA’s ombudsman explaining that he is not the John Lewis banned from flying.

Their experiences highlight the problems that confront hundreds of Americans who possess a name on the lists, civil liberties advocates say.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of those innocently listed, challenging the absence of due process in the listing procedures.

Adm. Stone said yesterday the problem of false positives was one of the reasons the agency was so keen “to get that under the government control — and then be able to adjudicate it quickly, so that we don’t have the inconveniences that passengers have simply because their names are close to those that are on those lists.”

Previously, officials had said they would continue to use the system — despite its shortcomings — until the next-generation system, known as CAPPS II, was in place.

But that system — which used commercial databases like mailing lists and government terrorist watch lists to allocate every passenger a threat score a little like a credit rating — was abandoned last month after prolonged congressional and expert criticism about privacy and civil rights problems and technical issues.

The September 11 commission recommended that the government should not wait for a successor to CAPPS II before acting, partly because the lists distributed to airlines were incomplete.

“Make no mistake,” commissioner John Lehman told the panel, “these lists do not include all of the known terrorists and do not include a rapid sharing of suspected possible terrorists that the intelligence community in its many different agencies develops, because the obstacles to sharing [information] between [them] remain virtually as high today as they were at September 11.”

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