Improve country’s watchlist system to ensure safety

The Times Square attempted bombing on May 1 highlighted that there is still work to be done to ensure our Federal watchlisting system effectively contributes to homeland security. With Faisal Shahzad successfully intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on an aircraft parked at a departure gate at JFK airport, I, like many Americans, found it troubling that he got so close to fleeing the country. 

Subsequently, we learned that federal law enforcement officials placed Shahzad on the No-Fly list several hours before he boarded an Emirates Airlines flight headed to Dubai. The No-Fly list, a subset of the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) watchlist, contains the names of individuals with known or suspected links to terrorism who have been deemed a threat to aviation. Recent reforms that were implemented after the Christmas Day 2009 incident seem to have improved the performance of the watchlisting system, insofar as Shahzad, unlike Christmas Day attacker Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was correctly placed on the No-Fly list. However, the placement of Shahzad on the No-Fly list did not keep him from purchasing a one-way ticket and receiving a boarding pass for his flight, highlighting a serious vulnerability in the current way the watchlisting process is managed. 

Specifically, today, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not oversee the critical security task of matching passengers’ names against the No-Fly and another TSA-specific list. As recommended by the 9/11 Commission, Congress required TSA to assume this responsibility. The program TSA established to fulfill this requirement, known as Secure Flight, has been plagued with technological challenges, implementation delays and was not operational for Emirates Air passengers on May 3, the day Shahzad attempted to flee the country.

Implementation of Secure Flight is being phased in and is expected to be fully implemented for all domestic and international carriers by the end of 2010.

TSA has promised Secure Flight will improve the efficacy of watchlisting, reduce the number of false positive matches where innocent people are misidentified who happen to have the same name as an individual on the No-Fly list, and speed up the vetting process.

However, until implementation is complete, individual air carriers will still be required to match passengers’ names against the No-Fly list using their own widely varying systems. 

Shahzad’s placement on the No-Fly list went unnoticed by Emirates Air, which was only required to update its No-Fly list with TSA once every 24 hours. Since then, TSA has required air carriers to update their vetting systems with TSA information more frequently.

Increased TSA oversight of air carriers’ name matching protocols and the forthcoming Secure Flight implementation has the potential of improving the efficacy of the No-Fly list, but it represents just one layer of security. 

On May 19, when we heard testimony from the former leaders of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, Gov. Tom Kean and Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Committee on Homeland Security was reminded by the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report about the need for a “layered system” of security to address the broad spectrum of threats. While there is still room for improvement in using the terrorist watchlist to identify and apprehend terrorists, I can say that inter-agency cooperation in using the watchlist as a tool to stop terrorists has made our Nation and our aviation system more secure.

After all, Mr. Shahzad was apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection whose agents ran the passenger manifest for the Emirates Air flight against the No-Fly list, as is their practice prior to flight departure. Because he was quickly placed on the No-Fly list earlier in the day, Shahzad was properly identified as a No-Fly and arrested before the aircraft left the gate. 

However, more work remains to be done as the terrorist threat continues to evolve. In the coming months, the Committee on Homeland Security will continue to work with the Department of Homeland Security, the Terrorist Screening Center, and others in the Intelligence Community to improve watchlist coordination and passenger screening efforts. 

While Shahzad was apprehended, the incident serves as a reminder that we must be more vigilant than ever and apply the lessons learned to better secure our Nation.  

Thompson is the Chair of the Committee on Homeland Security.