Director of Terror Watch List Says Government Has Technical Capability to Screen All Passengers Against Full List Before They Board Planes

January 13, 2010 - 8:46 PM
While less than one percent of the 400,000 people named on the terrorist watch list would be prohibited from boarding planes because they are on the "no fly" list, the government has the technical capability to screen passengers against the entire list at airports, a top counterterrorism official told CNSNews.com on Wednesday.
(CNSNews.com) – While less than one percent of the 400,000 people on the federal government's watch list of "known and suspected" terrorists are currently automatically prohibited from boarding airplanes because they are on the subset of the watch list known as the "No Fly" list, the government does have the technical capability to screen all passengers against the full list before they board flights, the top government official responsible for the watchlist told CNSNews.com on Wednesday.
 
“It would be technologically feasible to screen airline passengers against the entire Terrorist Screening Database,” Timothy J. Healy, director of the Justice Department’s Terrorist Screening Center, told CNSNews.com in a written response to questions submitted earlier this week.
 
After the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day, President Barack Obama vowed to increase the number of people on the “No Fly” list, a subset of the larger terror list.
 
The No Fly list includes 3,400 names out of the 400,000, and those 3,400 people automatically are flagged and prohibited from boarding a plane. Out of the 3,400, 170 are Americans, Healy said.
 
Another subset of the Terrorist Screening Database is the Selectee list. People on this list -- which includes 14,000 names, according to the FBI -- are subjected to extra scrutiny before they board airplanes but are not necessarily barred from boarding. The number on this list has dropped from October 2008 when then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said it included about 16,000 names.
 
“The No Fly and Selectee lists are only used for passenger pre-screening,” Healy said. “All airline passengers traveling into the U.S., out of the U.S., or aboard a plane traveling over the U.S. airspace are screened against the Terrorist Screening Database.”
 
Asked why the government does not screen the entire list, Healy said, “Based on the administration’s direction, the watch listing process and criteria is currently under review, including the criteria for inclusion on the Selectee and No Fly lists.”

A July 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office states, “Not all known or reasonably suspected terrorists are prohibited from boarding an aircraft, or are subject to additional security screening prior to boarding an aircraft. This is reflected in the number of records and identities in the TSDB that are not included on the No Fly and Selectee lists.”
 
“Passenger prescreening against terror watch lists proposed by the Security Flight program is only one component of a larger security cycle that protects the nation’s commercial aviation,” Healy said.
 
Asked if scanning the entire list would potentially hold up the process of moving people onto flights, Healy said, “As indicated above, the No Fly and Selectee criteria and screening process is currently under review.”
 
The extra measures detailed by Obama in a speech last week were in response to that failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day. As was widely reported, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, working with al Qaeda in Yemen, boarded a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit and tried to detonate explosives he had smuggled aboard in his underwear.

Osama bin Laden (Wikipedia Commons)

Abdulmutallab’s father had warned U.S. officials in Nigeria that his son had embraced al Qaeda and could be a threat. However, government officials did not identify the threat in time to stop him from boarding the flight.
 
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs seemed uncertain whether screening the 400,000 names on the terrorist watch list would be a solution to tracking terrorists before they board an airplane.
 
“Obviously, we want to have something that ensures people that shouldn’t get on planes don’t,” Gibbs told CNSNews.com. “But, at the same time, not something that would be so unwieldy that we can’t do it operationally.”
 
The problem is the lack of information in the list itself to adequately identify potential terrorists, said Daniel Goure, a national security expert and vice president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank.
 
“The terrorist watch list is full of holes, multiple names for the same person,” Goure told CNSNews.com. “It is such a general list. It has almost a half-million people, and at best it has a name and a country of origin. A lot of cases the ID being so basic is the real problem.”
 
To qualify to be on the No Fly list subset, someone must be “a known or suspected terrorist and must present a threat to civil aviation or national security,” Healy said. “Consequently, the No Fly list is a very small subset of the Terrorist Watch list.”
 
That sets the bar too high, said Gabriel Schoenfield, a national security expert at the Hudson Institute.
 
“There are serious questions about who is entering the country,” Schoenfield told CNSNews.com. “This should not be a question of whether they pose a threat of terrorism or to aviation. If you have association with radical Islamist groups, why are they getting visas to come to this country?”