By Keith Laing - 09/18/14 03:49 PM EDT
The chairman of the House's transportation security subcommittee said Thursday that the federal government's controversial "no-fly" terrorist watch list is "crucial" to protecting international flights to the U.S. in the face of threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The no-fly list has been criticized by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who have successfully argued in court that the federal government is not transparent enough about its watchlist selections.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's transportation panel, said Thursday that commercial airliners are a "highly attractive target" to terrorists, especially ISIS members who have western passports.
"In addition to the threats posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates," he continued, "the thousands of foreign fighters, including U.S. citizens, affiliated with terrorist groups like ISIS are a growing and serious threat to the security of U.S. aviation and the homeland. It is critical that we accurately identify individuals who pose this threat and prevent them from boarding flights to the United States."
Lawmakers have raised concerns ISIS has thousands of members that have U.S. or European passports and could slip into America undetected.
A federal court recently sided with the civil liberties groups' claim that it is too hard for passengers to challenge their placement on the no-fly list.
Hudson defended the Transportation Security Administration's use of the terrorist watch list on Thursday, however.
"TSA relies on a multi-layered approach to aviation security with everything from Federal Air Marshals, to canines, to the latest explosives detection technology," he said.
"One of these layers is a behind-the-scenes program known as Secure Flight," Hudson continued. "This program, which is the subject of today’s hearing, takes passenger data it receives from airlines and matches it against the U.S. Government’s consolidated Terrorist Watch List, including the No Fly and Selectee Lists. This program is crucial not only for domestic flights, but also for protecting international flights bound for the United States."
Hudson acknowledged the complaints of civil liberties groups, however, saying "while these lists serve as an important counterterrorism tool, we must ensure that travelers who are incorrectly matched to a list are able to resolve those issues in a timely, effective manner."
Hudson concluded that it was a delicate balancing act for the federal officials between airline safety and civil liberties.
"The bottom line is that our aviation security is only as strong as its weakest link," he said. "We must identify individuals who pose a threat, such as extremists with Western passports who have joined the fight in Iraq or Syria, and take the necessary steps to protect the homeland."