GAO Fails to Green-Light Controversial Secure Flight Program

In its much-anticipated review of the controversial Secure Flight passenger-screening program, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) could effectively put a halt on the Transportation Security Administration's screening program.

GOA found that while TSA is "making progress in addressing each of the key areas of congressional interest related to the development and implementation of Secure Flight, including developing and testing the system," it has not yet completed those efforts or fully addressed concerns. As an example, GAO cited the fact that while TSA has drafted a concept of operational and system requirements, it has not finalized these key concepts or completed test activities that will need to be accomplished before Secure Flight becomes operational.

"The government itself found that Secure Flight is not ready for take-off and should be held at the gate," said Timothy Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU believes the Secure Flight program, as it was created, violates the right to privacy of travelers.

Sparapani claims that of the 10 areas that Congress asked the GAO to evaluate, the TSA has only addressed one. TSA was expected to launch Secure Flight in August. However, the GAO report shows that this program is behind schedule, that its core components - such as the ability to match airline data against watch lists and the reliability of those watch lists - remain uncertain, its privacy impact cannot be determined, and that its ultimate financial cost has not been calculated.

Other key concerns that the GAO is reporting remain unaddressed are:

  • The use of PNR data to check against watch lists to determine who is a threat.
  • The accuracy of the terrorists watch lists "has not been fully determined."
  • TSA has not yet fully examined the privacy impacts of Secure Flight.

"Given the lack of basic knowledge and testing of whether this program is even workable, it is hard to see how it could possibly be worth setting in motion so soon," added Sparapani. "Just as it is possible for Americans to be both safe and free – it is equally possible that if we are not careful we will end up with programs that make us neither safe nor free."

To read the GAO's review of the Secure Flight Program, go to www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-356.

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