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Critics Wary of New Traveler Profile System

An amalgam of liberal and conservative groups warns the computerized program could flag millions of airline passengers for searches.

August 26, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Millions more travelers could be flagged for intensive airport searches under a new computerized profiling system planned by the government, an unusual coalition of conservative and liberal critics warned Monday.

"Everyone who flies will be affected by this in a very serious way," David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said at a joint news conference with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Keene said he had been told at a private briefing by the head of the Transportation Security Administration that an estimated 8% of the 2.5 million passengers boarding commercial flights each day would be classified as posing an "unknown risk" and asked to step aside for additional searches.

Because many passengers fly often, 8% of those boarding on any given day could translate into at least 6.5 million in the course of a year, according to a Times analysis of Transportation Department statistics.

"I'd be worried about the people who are going to be subject to increased scrutiny," said Keene, adding that the government has "gone beyond what is reasonable" in its "zeal" to protect Americans from other attacks like those of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's a flawed premise that to catch terrorists you have to spy on law-abiding Americans," said Laura W. Murphy, the ACLU's top Washington lobbyist.

TSA officials defended the profiling system, saying the government has no intention of unfairly stigmatizing citizens and is trying to conduct the checks with minimal intrusion on travelers' privacy.

"We will be looking long and hard ... at the reason those folks are selected for screening," said Nuala O'Connor Kelly, TSA's chief privacy officer.

The number of people flagged is likely to be "substantially smaller" than critics maintain, she added, but "I don't think we can even say until we test the system."

Previously, TSA had said it hoped the computerized system would allow the agency to better focus its resources and reduce the number of people who have to undergo a hand-wand inspection, shoe checks and close checks of their carry-on items.

Known as CAPPS II, the new system is the second generation of the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening program.

The original version was put into place after the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, in which terrorism was initially suspected. It was later blamed on a mechanical defect that ignited fuel vapors.

The government is planning to test CAPPS II in the coming months and deploy it within the next two years.

The first edition, still in place, has been administered by the airlines. The new version will be government-run and use sensitive intelligence and law enforcement databases.

Liberal and conservative opponents are trying to generate political support to force major changes in the screening system, or block it altogether. A period for public comments expires at the end of September.

Under CAPPS II, every passenger would provide his or her name, birth date, home address and home phone number when making an airline reservation.

Commercial database companies would check that information and report back to the government a "score" indicating the likelihood that the passenger is who he or she claims to be.

The government would then run the passenger information through classified national security and law enforcement databases to determine whether the person could be a known terrorist or have links to terrorists.

The system also would eventually attempt to identify individuals wanted on federal or state criminal warrants for violent crime charges.

As a result of the check, each passenger would be assigned a "risk score" of high, unknown or low, usually referred to as red, yellow or green.

Red, or high-risk, travelers might face an unscheduled appointment with FBI agents when they arrive at the airport, if not before. Keene said TSA chief James Loy told him the agency expects about 400 to 500 of these travelers a year.

Low-risk travelers would undergo routine checks, putting their carry-on items in the X-ray machine and passing through the metal detector.

"CAPPS II will ensure that passengers do not sit next to known terrorists and wanted murderers," TSA said in a statement Monday.

But civil liberties advocates said they were concerned about the middle group, those placed in the yellow, or "unknown risk," category and subject to closer searches. In addition to those passengers, TSA would pick others at random for closer searches, as is now done.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, said he feared a disproportionate number of minority travelers would wind up in the middle category.

Low-income people who change addresses frequently might trigger suspicion, he said. And he wondered how the system would cope with people who change their name when they convert to Islam, a fast-growing religion among African Americans.

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