Cracks in System Open to Terrorists; Recent Tests of a Computer-Assisted Passenger-Screening System Found Shocking Vulnerabilities, but a Proposed Upgrade May Weaken Security at Airports Even More

Insight on the News, March 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Cracks in System Open to Terrorists; Recent Tests of a Computer-Assisted Passenger-Screening System Found Shocking Vulnerabilities, but a Proposed Upgrade May Weaken Security at Airports Even More


Byline: Timothy W. Maier, INSIGHT

Imagine if the world's most notorious fugitive, Osama bin Laden, attempted to board an airliner in the United States. Suppose he were clean-shaven, sporting short hair, wearing a pin-striped business suit and looked like so many other travelers that no suspicions were raised. How far might he get? If he used aliases such as names of family members he would be nabbed instantly and whisked away for questioning. That's because many of his relatives are on the FBI's secret "no-fly list," according to intelligence sources.

But suppose he boldly decided to use his own name. Would he be cleared to fly? Insight recently learned that scenario was tested at a U.S. airport in the South during January. The result was troubling: America's most-wanted fugitive is cleared to fly. According to airline-security documents obtained by this magazine, the name Osama bin Laden was punched into the computer by an airline official and, remarkably, that name was cleared at the security checkpoint all passengers must pass through before being issued a boarding pass.

The realization that Osama bin Laden made the cut sent shivers down the spines of airline-security officials who discovered the system gap. "When the most-wanted man in modern history is not included on the list of possible terrorists there are some serious deficiencies in the system which need to be addressed," says an airport-security official familiar with the test. In fact, Insight has learned from law-enforcement sources that at least two other names of known terrorists cleared security checkpoints when officials punched them into the computer.

As shocking as these revelations may seem, airline-security experts and privacy-advocate groups say they are not surprised. Kathleen Sweet, author of Aviation and Airport Security: Terrorism and Safety Concerns, tells Insight the incident confirms the vulnerability of the current system. "It often fails to detect terrorists until they have boarded the plane," and by then it might be too late, Sweet warns. As she points out, "We have computers talking to each other but not necessarily in a timely manner."

When Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokesman Mark Hatfield was asked why bin Laden's name did not set off alarms, he grew silent. Obviously uncomfortable, he at last said the airlines that employ Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening (CAPS), a software program designed to flag suspicious travelers, don't use it, well, consistently. "It is almost 10 years since CAPS began, and there is just not a great deal of consistency between the airlines," he says. "It is possible for some airlines to flag some passengers while other airlines may end up clearing them to fly." The real-time data aren't even sent to the ticket agent, which means a name recently flagged may not show up in the airline system until it's too late. Pressed to comment specifically on bin Laden's name being cleared to fly, Hatfield refused to attempt an explanation unless told how and by whom the terrorist's name was entered.

Hatfield simply acknowledges there are systematic flaws in the system and says that's why TSA proposed in January to build an upgraded version called Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II). The proposed system would transmit real-time data with no delays and be run by TSA rather than the airlines.

The first CAPS program was the brainchild of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, better known as the "Gore Commission," because the former vice president chaired the panel. Its report directed the federal government to "consider aviation security as a national-security issue" and President Bill Clinton dumped $100 million into such efforts, helping to launch the first CAPS program in 1998, three years before 9/11.

Details of the software were kept under close wraps by the federal government, which feared the slightest release of information could help terrorists defeat the system. …

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