Secure Flight Takes Flight: It's About Time

Report Homeland Security

Secure Flight Takes Flight: It's About Time

September 27, 2004 3 min read

Authors: Paul Rosenzweig, Alane Kochems and James Carafano

The Department of Homeland security has announced a new program, "Secure Flight," designed to screen flight passenger data and flag possible terrorists before they board an airplane. Congress should support testing and implementation of Secure Flight and move this initiative forward quickly. Failure to do so will leave one of the most glaring gaps in America's post-9/11 defense unaddressed.


The 9/11 Commission's final report proposed over three dozen recommendations for fighting the war on terrorism. Among them, the Commission found that we still lack an adequate means to screen all passengers of commercial flight against watch lists that identify known or suspected terrorists. Today, airlines still rely primarily on the Computer-Assisted Prescreening Passenger System (CAPPS), a program created long before 9/11 that tries to identify suspicious passengers for further screening based on certain criteria, such as the form of payment and travel itinerary information. CAPPS failed to keep any of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 off a plane.


The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) planned to replace this system with CAPPS II, which would have had the capability not only to check passenger data against terrorist watch lists, but also to identify individuals who might have links to terrorist groups, based on government intelligence and other information, rather than the arbitrary models in CAPPS. Unfortunately, a contentious debate over how best to use the data and protect civil liberties hamstrung TSA's efforts. Congressional restrictions bogged down the implementation of CAPPS II, preventing TSA from rapidly testing and deploying the system.


Rather than remaining embroiled in a protracted debate over what would be a perfect program, TSA wisely chose to restructure CAPPS II into an initiative, Secure Flight, that will accomplish the most immediate and essential task, watch list screening. TSA has proposed to test Secure Flight and, if successful, to move forward to implementation of the program.


Under Secure Flight, TSA will check passenger information against identifying information in the database of the Terrorist Screening Center. The Center, created by the President to integrate the information available on all the terrorist watch lists maintained by federal agencies, will be able to tell TSA accurately which passengers require further screening. In addition, since the system will be operated by TSA rather than the airlines, the costs of implementation will be borne by the government and not the air carriers, reducing their long-term costs. More significantly, Secure Flight resolves a number of security and privacy concerns. Because the watch-list checking will be done by TSA, Secure Flight will be able to use a classified list, rather than the unclassified list now shared with airlines.


Some say that Secure Flight is just a warmed over version of CAPPS II. They are wrong. In addition to changing who is responsible for cross-checking passenger flight information with the watch list, Secure Flight makes other changes:


  • Secure Flight will not apply to international travel;
  • Secure Flight will be limited to terrorism threats and will not apply to traditional criminal offenses; and
  • In the test phase, only historical data will be used, and the utility of commercial data as a source of accuracy will be examined and tested.

Congress should appropriate funds for the rapid testing and implementation of Secure Flight without imposing cumbersome restrictions. To be sure, as the program is developed, additional civil liberties protections will need to be added-for example, a redress mechanism has yet to be determined. But, on balance, the Department of Homeland Security is to be commended for providing leadership to ensure that Secure Flight is implemented efficiently and with due regard for security, privacy, and civil liberties.


Most importantly, Secure Flight is likely to become a "spiral development" program that allows for adding new features and technologies to improve our capacity to find possible terrorists and protect the rights and privacy of individuals. Secure Flight should represent the baseline, not the end state of our efforts to use technology to thwart the threat of global terrorism.


Paul Rosenzweig is Senior Legal Research Fellow in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and Alane Kochems is a Research Assistant in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


Paul Rosenzweig
Paul Rosenzweig

Former Visiting Fellow, The Heritage Foundation (2009-2017)

Alane Kochems

Former Policy Analyst, National Security

James Carafano
James Carafano

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow