Terror Suspect Reveals Flaws in ‘No-Fly List’ System
WASHINGTON - Suspected terrorist Faisal Shahzad's boarding of a flight in New York on Monday exposes a security hole that the government has yet to close after spending seven years and half a billion dollars to fix the problem.
The breach by Shahzad occurred partly because the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) still leaves it to airlines to check the government's "no-fly list" to make sure no one barred from commercial airplanes is a passenger. The TSA has wanted since 2003 to take over the process, but its proposed "Secure Flight " program has been stalled by opposition and controversy over privacy.
Shahzad, accused of trying to bomb New York's Times Square on Saturday, was added to the list Monday but was able to board a Dubai-bound flight at Kennedy International Airport hours later. The Homeland Security Department said Emirates Airlines missed an alert that added Shahzad to the no-fly list.
"The fact that we're relying, this long after 9/11, on the efforts of airlines, many of which are courting bankruptcy, is a policy failure," said former Homeland Security policy director Stewart Baker.
The TSA tacitly acknowledged flaws on Tuesday when it required airlines to adopt a new procedure for the no-fly list used at airports to prescreen passengers. The airlines must now refresh, or electronically sync, their lists to make them up to date with official government no-fly lists within two hours of receiving an emergency alert.
Shahzad likely would have been flagged by the Secure Flight system, which will put the TSA in charge of comparing passenger names to the no-fly list. The TSA says Secure Flight is in place for many domestic airlines and will be used for international airlines by the end of 2010.
The program would have begun sooner if the TSA had better understood the difficulties airlines face in revising computer systems so passenger names can be sent to the TSA, said Steve Lott of the International Air Transport Association. "Getting every carrier to comply with the standards has probably added 18 to 24 months," Lott said.
Before airlines began their computer conversions, the TSA effort was delayed by planning errors including a 2004 blow-up in which the agency collected information about millions of passengers without disclosing what it was doing, causing outcry from privacy advocates and lawmakers.
The TSA's prescreening of passengers will improve security by keeping the no-fly list confidential instead of sharing it with airlines, some of which are owned by foreign governments. The TSA also says it could check passengers against numerous terrorist databases in addition to the no-fly list if it controls prescreening.