- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006


An ambitious program to check every domestic airline passenger’s name against government terrorist watch lists might not be immune from hackers, a congressional investigator said yesterday.

And because of security concerns, the government is going back to the drawing board with the program called Secure Flight after spending nearly four years and $150 million on it, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee was told.

Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley did not say whether any security breaches had been discovered.TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter told reporters, “We don’t believe any passenger information has been compromised.”

Cathleen Berrick, the investigator for the Government Accountability Office, said in written testimony that “TSA may not have proper controls in place to protect sensitive information.”

Currently, airlines check the names of passengers against watch lists that the government gives them. Under Secure Flight, the government would take over from the airlines the task of checking names against watch lists.

According to the GAO testimony, Secure Flight was given formal authority to go live in September, but a government team found that the system software and hardware had 82 security vulnerabilities.

Mr. Hawley told the committee that he has directed TSA’s information technology staff to conduct a complete audit of the program before developing it further.

“In view of our need to establish trust with all of our stakeholders on the security and privacy of our systems and data, my priority is to ensure that we do it right — not just that we do it quickly,” Mr. Hawley said.

The audit began several weeks ago and there is no deadline for completion, Ms. von Walter said.

Secure Flight has been beset with troubles from the start.

It is strongly opposed by civil libertarians who fear the program would grow into a massive domestic surveillance system in which the government tracks people whenever they travel.

Government auditors gave the project failing grades — twice — and rebuked its authors for secretly obtaining personal information about airline passengers.

Mr. Hawley said last month — and the GAO agreed in its testimony yesterday — that the agency hadn’t yet determined precisely how Secure Flight would work.

Senate commerce panel Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, told reporters he didn’t think that Secure Flight should be held up by the GAO.

“I’m not really pleased,” Mr. Stevens said. “They ought to stand back and give advice.”

The September 11 commission has urged the administration to expedite the development of the program because, it said, the watch lists now used by airlines aren’t complete.

But checking names against watch lists hasn’t been as easy as it sounds. The number of names on the watch lists increased into the tens of thousands since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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