Terrorist exploitation of the commercial air industry came to a crescendo with the 9/11 attacks. Neither industry nor governments globally could ignore the need to provide better security for aircraft as well as passengers. Striking the balance between passenger screening and the efficient movement of those passengers has been a major challenge not only for the commercial aviation industry but also for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

A workable solution may be in the offing in the form of the Registered Traveler (RT) program, a new initiative facilitated by the TSA. The RT program is administered by local airport authorities, working in close cooperation with Clear® – a division of Verifiedentity Pass Inc. The company’s, and TSA’s, goal is to provide a service that balances a mandatory reduction of risks in aviation security with the convenience of expedited airport screening, while also ensuring a high level of privacy protection.

Although any process that reduces the waiting time for airport screening would obviously be well received by commercial aviation customers, there might be a hidden pitfall involved in the RT program – namely, that the knowledgeable terrorist might view it as a clever way to thwart security detection.

How the Process Works Currently being advertised as the perfect seasonal gift for the frequent flyer, participation in the fee-based Clear® program is strictly voluntary. For a one-year cost of $99.95, the Clear® member can move through special express lanes at selected airport screening stations in 14 cities (a number that is likely to climb rapidly in the very near future). The screening procedures areentical to those in regular lanes, but the screening lanes for RT participants are shorter.

Becoming a Clear® member is a two-step process. In step one, an applicant provides certain biographical information to Verifiedentity Pass Inc. – either in person, or through the company’s website (www.flyclear.com). The applicant also Any process that reduces the waiting time for airport screening would be well received by commercial aviation customers, [but] there might be a hidden pitfall involved in the RT program must agree, in writing, to certain contractual terms and conditions mandated by TSA and spelled out by Clear® on the application forms.

In the second step, the applicant is required to report in person to an enrollment station where biometric data – iris imaging and fingerprinting – is collected, along with a photograph. In addition, the information provided by the applicant must be verified at the enrollment station through two forms of approved government-issuedentification.

The information provided by the applicant is then submitted to TSA for screening against the agency’s “no-fly” and terrorist watch list databases. The TSA collects $28 of the membership fee from Clear® to pay for this vetting service. If the application is approved by TSA, the company issues a specially designed personalentification card to the applicant, who is now armed with aviation industry’s version of an easy pass. The process is relatively simple, obviously – so simple, in fact, that even a terrorist can understand it – and, perhaps, try to circumvent it.

An Unequal Two-Way Exchange of Information To understand whether the Registered Traveler program can be circumvented, though, it is important to realize that the RT is a subset of TSA’s own “Secure Flight” initiative. The regulations proposed for Secure Flight are currently going through a required public-notice review process, but the public comment period for the “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” for the Secure Flight program (46 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 1540, 1544, & 1560) closed late last month – on 21 November 2007. A major goal of the Secure Flight program is to centralize the collection and vetting of the passenger information received from air carriers prior to the issuance of boarding passes.

But RT participants are already pre-vetted and cleared. In other words, the Clear® member is a person already known to the TSA by virtue of his or her “enrollment” in the RT program, so a Clear® member applicant who is not on a no-fly or terrorist watch list is considered to be presumptively cleared to fly. Of course, neither the Registered Traveler program nor the Secure Flight program is designed to profile or predict future passenger behavior – but the RT program does include a pre-vetting process that matches applicants against lists of known or suspected threats to aviation security.

Another factor to consider is that the airport screening process – in the RT lanes as well as in the regular security lanes – is designed to detect dangerous devices and materials as well as suspicious behavior on the part of people intending to board aircraft. Clear® members as well as regular travelers are screened, inentical ways, against the standards set by the TSA. The Clear® member simply has a shorter line in which to wait for screening. It seems very unlikely, therefore, that a terrorist could exploit the Clear® program to circumvent airport screening. Although it is true that persons such as Richard Reid (the “shoe bomber”) and Timothy McVeigh (who bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City) might have been granted RT program privileges prior to their criminal acts, they would have had no greater advantage in carrying their destructive devices onto an aircraft than would be available to any other passenger.

There is another aspect of the Clear® program, though, that may be attractive to at least some terrorists – namely, that the Clear® program provides a low-cost opportunity for terrorists to check their ownentities against government no-fly and terrorist watch list databases. In other words, simply by registering through the Clear® program application process, the individual terrorist can receive notification, via the U.S. Postal Service, whether he or she is on a terrorist watch list.

However, by trying to exploit this seeming loophole, the terrorist would have to provide the government his or her own current address – as well as some helpful (to the government) additional information, especially the biometricentification required by the application process. From an evidentiary point of view, the terrorist operator or suspect risks providing government prosecutors and investigators important leads on types of government-issued and/or counterfeitedentification used in the RT application process. Any credit-card information provided by a terrorist applicant also might be useful for criminal investigators and/or prosecutors.

On balance, therefore, it seems that the fee-based Clear® program will provide most regular aircraft passengers a genuine opportunity for faster and more efficient security screening without any real compromise in security. As more airports install these easy-pass lanes at more screening stations, of course, the convenience provided will become progressively that much larger. On the other hand, though, as more and more airline passengers take advantage of the convenience provided by the Clear® RT cards, the longer the easy-pass lines themselves are likely to become.

Joseph Steger

Joseph Steger is the pseudonym of a senior law-enforcement commander whose undergraduate background in a pre-medical program led to initial certification as an EMT in 1981. He retained that level of certification for eight years and across three states while serving as a federal law-enforcement officer. Over the years, Steger has worked closely with CONTOMS-trained tactical medics and physicians in numerous situations.

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