Homeland Security: Air Passenger Prescreening and Counterterrorism

Publication Date: March 2005

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Government; Transportation



The adequacy of existing systems to screen air passengers against terrorist watch lists has been questioned, most notably by the 9/11 Commission. Yet, considerable controversy surrounds air passenger prescreening systems, such as the "No Fly" or "Automatic Selectee" lists, underscoring that screening passengers for more intensive searches of their persons or baggage, or to prevent them from boarding an aircraft in the event of a terrorist watch list hit, is likely to be a difficult proposition for the federal agencies tasked with aviation security. Today, those agencies principally include the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)-administered Terrorist Screening Center (TSC).

In October 2004, TSA unveiled the Secure Flight test program -- the next generation domestic air passenger prescreening system. Secure Flight consists of four elements: (1) a streamlined rule for more intensive screening; (2) an identity authentication process; (3) a passenger name check against the consolidated terrorist screening database (TSDB); and (4) an appeals process for passengers who may have been misidentified. The TSC has consolidated the "No Fly" and "Automatic Selectee" lists with the TSDB. Since CBP has assumed responsibility for prescreening passengers on inbound and outbound international flights, TSA will only prescreen domestic flights under Secure Flight. The Administration has proposed creating an Office of Screening Coordination and Operations (SCO) -- under DHS's Border and Transportation Security Directorate -- to oversee Secure Flight, among other screening, expedited inspection, and credentialing programs.

Congress included provisions in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-458) requiring: (1) TSA to assume the airline passenger prescreening function from U.S. air carriers after it establishes an advanced passenger prescreening system for domestic flights that utilizes the consolidated TSDB; (2) CBP to prescreen passengers on international flights against the TSDB prior to departure; and (3) DHS to establish appeals procedures by which persons who are identified as security threats may challenge such determinations. Also, in the FY2005 DHS Appropriations Act (P.L. 108-334), Congress prohibited TSA from spending any appropriated funds on the deployment of CAPPS II, Secure Flight, or any successor system, until the Government Accountability Office reports that certain conditions have been met, including the establishment of an appeals process.

Several issues may emerge for Congress. To what extent is the FBIadministered TSC supporting the air passenger screening activities of both the TSA and CBP? Has the quality and quantity of the records on the "No Fly" list been improved? Will the TSA and CBP be able to divide cleanly responsibility for screening air passengers on domestic and international flights, respectively? Will the proposed SCO be an effective mechanism to coordinate multiple border and transportation security screening programs? When will TSA be able to deploy an advanced air passenger screening system and assume the day-to-day administration of the "No Fly" lists from the airlines?