Terrorist Watchlist Checks and Air Passenger Prescreening
Considerable controversy surrounds U.S. air passenger prescreening and terrorist watchlist checks. In the past, such controversy centered around diverted international flights and misidentified passengers. More recently, however, the foiled conspiracy to bomb airlines bound for the United States from the United Kingdom (UK) has raised questions about the adequacy of existing processes to prescreen air passengers against terrorist watchlists. Observers have noted that the suspected conspirators may have been able to board aircraft bound for the United States without having been screened against the consolidated terrorist screening database (TSDB) maintained by the U.S. government prior to the flight's departure. Many of those observers have also noted that because the UK is a participant in the visa waiver program, British nationals are able to visit the United States temporarily for business or pleasure without acquiring a visa a U.S. consular post abroad-- a process during which they would be screened against the TSDB. Although all ticket purchasers are screened against aviation security watchlists (the "No Fly" and "Automatic Selectee" lists) at the point of purchase by air carriers, some international air passengers may not be screened against the larger, consolidated TSDB by U.S. border security officials prior to a flight's departure (wheels up) if they purchased their tickets just prior to the gates closing on a flight. In response to the recent plot, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has reportedly issued a temporary order requiring that passenger name records (PNRs) be provided preflight to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for transatlantic flights originating in the UK, as opposed to 15 minutes after the flight's departure as normally required under current law. In addition, CBP is seeking greater amounts of PNR data preflight from all air carriers and to retain that data for a greater length of time. U.S. authorities maintain that these measures are necessary to provide greater aviation and border security. Some Europeans, however, strongly oppose such data sharing and view U.S. demands for such data, without data privacy safeguards, as an infringement on their national and collective sovereignties. Complicating matters further, in July 2006, the European Court of Justice ruled that the existing agreement between the European Commission and CBP to exchange passenger name records was illegal. The Court ordered the cessation of this data exchange on September 30, 2006, in the absence of a new agreement that addresses the Court's objections with the existing agreement. If not resolved, this impasse could significantly affect travel from European Union countries to the United States. The continuing controversy surrounding U.S. air passenger prescreening processes and terrorist watchlist checks underscores that screening passengers for more intensive searches of their person or baggage, or to prevent them from boarding an aircraft in the event of a terrorist watchlist hit, is likely to be a difficult proposition for the federal agencies tasked with aviation and border security. These agencies include DHS's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and CBP, as well as the Terrorist Screening Center, which is administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
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