Even if Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab had never boarded that Christmas flight from Amsterdam to Detroit wearing explosive underpants, a passage on page 17 of a report published in July by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security would still be eye-popping.
"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," says the passage.
More than eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, people boarding commercial flights in the United States — and sometimes those boarding international flights bound for the United States — are still not screened against the government’s full Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB).
This is not an oversight. It is a policy.
The TSDB, authorized by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 11 signed by President Bush in 2004, was specifically produced — in the words of the directive itself — "to detect and interdict individuals known or reasonably suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism (‘terrorism suspects’) and terrorist activities." It is, according to the DHS IG, "the U.S. government’s consolidated watch list of all known or reasonably suspected terrorists."
When DHS decided to launch its "Secure Flight" program so that the Transportation Security Administration would directly screen both domestic and international air passengers against watch lists — rather than rely on airlines to do it — there was some concern that TSA would not be checking air passengers against the full TSDB but only against two subsets of the TSDB. These subsets were the "No Fly" list and the "Selectee" list.
The former is a list of names drawn from the TSDB that the government has decided should never be allowed to board a plane. The latter is another list of names drawn from the TSDB that the government has decided should be automatically subjected to greater scrutiny before they are allowed to board a plane.
The prospect that DHS would not screen all air passengers against the full TSDB list of "known and reasonably suspected" terrorists sufficiently alarmed some in Congress that the fiscal 2008 DHS appropriation bill included language stating that if the TSA decided to screen people only against parts of the watch list, the assistant secretary in charge of TSA "shall certify to the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate and the House of Representatives that no significant security risks are raised by screening airline passenger names only against a subset of the full terrorist watch list."
The DHS inspector general’s office conducted "fieldwork" on the question between March and September 2008, and in January 2009 published a report titled, "Role of the No Fly and Selectee Lists in Securing Commercial Aviation."
The report revealed that the No Fly and Selectee lists are designed to target only "specific categories" of terrorists. "In applying more narrow requirements than the TSDB’s minimum substantive derogatory criteria requirements, the No Fly and Selectee lists are intended to prevent specific categories of terrorists from boarding commercial aircraft or subject these terrorists to secondary screening prior to boarding, and are not for use as law enforcement or intelligence gathering tools," said the report.
The Sept. 11 commission report, published in 2005, said, "The ‘no fly’ and ‘automatic selectee’ lists include only those individuals who the U.S. government believes pose a direct threat of attacking aviation." The commission recommended that TSA should take over screening of air passengers from the airlines and "should utilize the larger set of watchlists maintained by the federal government."
The IG analysis conceded that people not included on the "No Fly" and "Selectee" lists could "present vulnerabilities to aviation security," but concluded that screening and security actions taken by agencies other than TSA — including the State Department, which screens foreign travelers applying for visas, and Customs and Border Protection, which screens travelers boarding international flights bound for the United States — mitigated the risk.
"Although the use of No Fly and Selectee lists is largely successful in identifying potential terrorists who could threaten commercial aviation, some individuals not included on the lists may also present vulnerabilities to aviation security," said the IG report. "However, passenger prescreening against terrorist watch lists proposed by the Secure Flight program is only one component of a larger security cycle that protects the nation’s commercial aviation system. International and domestic security activities within and outside the Department of Homeland Security, such as intelligence gathering, law enforcement investigations, visa issuance, and border protection, mitigate potential vulnerabilities not addressed by the Secure Flight program and enhance commercial aviation."
Gale D. Rossides, acting administrator of TSA, sent a memo to DHS IG Richard L. Skinner on March 17, 2009, indicating that her agency agreed with the conclusion of the IG’s report.
"TSA appreciates the work OIG has done in this review and agrees with OIG’s analysis and conclusions that the No Fly and Selectee Lists successfully identify terrorists who pose a threat to aviation security," the memo said. "TSA also agrees with OIG that other security measures address potential vulnerabilities not addressed by the Secure Flight program and that these security measures enhance aviation security."
A Homeland Security official told me on Tuesday that in 2008, in compliance with the language in DHS’s fiscal 2008 appropriation, the department had certified to the congressional appropriations committees that no significant risks were raised by screening airline passengers against only part of the full terrorist watch list.