Enhanced Background Checks to Begin for Some Passengers in August

WASHINGTON (AP) - The government will begin enhanced computerized background checks on some airline passengers in August, the head of the Transportation Security Administration announced Thursday.

The passenger screening program, dubbed "Secure Flight," is meant to replace a plan that never got to the testing phase because of criticism that it gave the government access to too much personal information.

That plan would have checked airline passengers' names against terrorist watch lists - and against personal information supplied by companies that sell data.

Still, by the end of March, the TSA plans to do just that in what it describes as "a limited test," according to TSA chief David Stone.

"We will find out if there's value added," Stone told the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Homeland Security Department, of which TSA is a part.

The TSA hopes that commercial data can be used to sort out people whose names are the same as those on terrorist watch lists, but who aren't terrorists.

Some airline passengers, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., have been told they couldn't fly because their names matched those on the lists.

Stone said the use of commercial data might help such passengers avoid waits at airline ticket counters while their identities are sorted out.

Airlines currently compare their passengers' names to the watch lists; the government wants to take over that task.

Minnesota Rep. Martin Sabo, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, said the Bush administration is not being open with Congress because it had indicated it wouldn't check passengers' names against commercial databases.

"We've heard a lot in the last few weeks about the insecurity of commercial data," Sabo said.

He cited ChoicePoint, which had allowed criminals to buy the records of about 145,000 people and steal the identities of some; Science Applications International Corp., which had thousands of employees' personal data stolen from its computers; and Bank of America, which lost computer data tapes containing personal information on 1.2 million federal employees, including some members of the U.S. Senate.

"I don't have great confidence that the Department can ensure the security of commercial data," Sabo said. "The TSA has shown that it cannot."

Four airlines and at least two reservation systems turned over passenger data - without the passengers' knowledge or permission - to the TSA or its contractors to test the background-check project in 2002 and 2003.

Amid widespread criticism, airlines later told the government they wouldn't voluntarily turn over passenger data.

But in November the airlines agreed to comply with the TSA's order to turn over a month's worth of passenger information - which includes credit card numbers, travel itineraries, addresses and telephone numbers.

Stone said the TSA recently finished checking that data against watch lists.

He said the agency plans to start checking passengers in real time Aug. 19, beginning with two airlines. Stone said the two airlines have not been selected yet.