Hurdles in Watchlist and Passenger Screening

Though significant progress has been made by multiple government agencies in making aviation watchlists and checkpoint technologies more efficient the government continues to lack an up-to-date strategy and implementation plan—supported by a clearly defined leadership or governance structure, according to testimony given last week by the Government Accounting Office. (GAO).
A prepared statement authored by Eileen R. Larence and Stephen M. Lord, GAO Directors of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, Stephen M. Lord, given January 27 before the To the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives examined the government’s recent and current efforts to use the terrorist watchlist to screen individuals and determine if they pose a threat, as well as how aspects of this process contributed to the December 25 attempted terrorist attack, and TSA’s planned deployment of the AIT or enhanced explosive detection and the challenges associated with this deployment.
Titled Better Use of Terrorist Watchlist Information and Improvements in Deployment of Passenger Screening Checkpoint Technologies Could Further Strengthen Security, the statement was based on products GAO issued from September 2006 through October 2009.
The statement commented that, despite earlier recommendations by GAO, screening agencies whose missions most frequently and directly involve interactions with travelers still generally do not check against all records in the consolidated terrorist watchlist.
“TSA is implementing a new screening program that the agency states will have the capability to screen an individual against the entire watchlist,” the statement said.
“Under this program, called Secure Flight,” it added, “ TSA will assume from air carriers the responsibility of comparing passenger information against the No Fly and Selectee lists. According to the program’s final rule, in general, Secure Flight is to compare passenger information only to the No Fly and Selectee lists. The supplementary information accompanying the rule notes that this will be satisfactory to counter the security threat during normal security circumstances."
According to TSA, as of January 2010, the agency was developing administrative procedures for utilizing the full watchlist when warranted.
The statement also explained that TSA has not yet deployed any new screening technologies nationwide. As of December 31, 2009, it said, “the agency has deployed 40 of the millimeter wave AITs, and has procured 150 backscatter X-ray units in fiscal year 2009 and estimates that these units will be installed at airports by the end of calendar year 2010. In addition, TSA plans to procure an additional 300 AIT units in fiscal year 2010, some of which will be purchased with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.”
In addition it said “TSA plans to procure and deploy a total of 878 units at all category X through category IV airports , with full operating capability is expected in fiscal year 2014.”
The GAO statement cautioned, however, that while TSA “stated that the AIT will enhance its explosives detection capability, because the AIT presents a full body image of a person during the screening process, concerns have been expressed that the image is an invasion of privacy.”
In addition to privacy concerns, it said, the AITs are large machines, and adding them to the checkpoint areas will require additional space, especially since the operators are segregated from the checkpoint to help ensure passenger privacy.
“We previously reported on several challenges TSAfaces related to the research, development, and deployment of passenger checkpoint screening technologies and made a number of recommendations to improve this process,” the statement explained.
One key challenge identified by GAO, the statement said, was based on the October 2009 finding that TSA had relied on technologies in day-to-day airport operations that had not been proven to meet their functional requirements through operational testing and evaluation, contrary to TSA’s acquisition guidance and a knowledge-based acquisition approach. Based on that finding GAO recommended that TSA operationally test and evaluate technologies prior to deploying them.
In addition the statement said, “TSA does not know whether its explosives detection technologies, such as the AITs, are susceptible to terrorist tactics.” “Although TSA has obtained information on vulnerabilities at the screening checkpoint,” the statement cautioned, “ the agency has not assessed vulnerabilities—that is, weaknesses in the system that terrorists could exploit in order to carry out an attack—related to passenger screening technologies, such as AITs, that are currently deployed."
Without an assessment of the vulnerabilities of checkpoint technologies, the statement explained, it is unclear whether the AIT or other technologies would have been able to detect the weapon Mr. Abdulmutallab used in his attempted attack. Though TSA is in the process of developing a risk assessment for the airport checkpoints, the statement said, the agency has not yet completed this effort or clarified the extent to which this effort addresses any specific vulnerabilities in checkpoint technology.
Also of continued concern, the statement said, was the fact that “TSA’s covert testing programs do not systematically test passenger and baggage screening technologies nationwide to ensure that they identify the threat objects and materials the technologies are designed to detect, nor do the covert testing programs identify vulnerabilities related to these technologies.”

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