Is It Really Possible to Trust Travelers?

By Matthew Harwood

This piece is Part IV of Security Management's 9-11 Anniversary Special Focus. In this issue Part I examined the evolving terrorist threat and the progress made in understanding and countering it. In Part II, ASIS leadership recount how they dealt with events on that day; and one of the architects of the Suspicious Activity Reporting program shares insights into its formation and expansion in Part III.

A specter haunts the airport security checkpoint. He or she is a U.S. citizen or possibly a legal immigrant who has been in the country for years. This person has no criminal record and, therefore, despite the manifold tools developed by law enforcement and the intelligence community since September 11, 2001, triggers no alarms.

This “clean-skin terrorist” is the boogeyman of the counterterrorism and homeland security profession, and the primary reason why the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has failed to implement a trusted traveler program to make the security screening process faster, more cost-effective, and less intrusive. But that’s about to change.

In July, TSA Administrator John Pistole, the nation’s top transportation security official, announced that the agency would begin testing a trusted traveler program this fall at airports in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, and Miami. While Pistole was short on details, the pilot program will give some frequent fliers of American Airlines and Delta Air Lines as well as some members of Customs and Border Protection’s Trusted Traveler programs expedited security screening.

Pistole’s announcement comes at a time when full body scanners and enhanced pat-downs have led civil rights advocates and some members of Congress to question the logic behind TSA procedures that treat everyone as a potential terrorist. Aviation security stakeholders have welcomed Pistole’s statements, believing that, finally, a risk-based approach to passenger screening will get off the ground.

“I think people are now realizing that budgets have ballooned within TSA, specifically for aviation screening, and that passenger levels are going to be on the rise,” says Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association (USTA). Consequently, “the current course [of screening everyone] is unsustainable.”

Past Lessons

While the TSA itself has never had a trusted traveler program, it did support some private sector initiatives under its Registered Traveler program. The most notable was Clear, created by Verified Identity Pass Inc. in 2005. It charged a fee in exchange for presumably streamlining air travelers’ airport screening. To qualify, travelers paid the $199 application fee, submitted biometrics (iris and fingerprints) and personal information, and underwent a TSA-supplied threat assessment. But the guarantee of reduced screening never came to fruition, because TSA refused to screen Clear members differently from other passengers.

“TSA was not persuaded that [Clear’s process] was adding to security,” says Stewart Baker, the first assistant secretary of policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, D.C.



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