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"Screening program questioned"


 
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Screening program questioned
BY CAROL EISENBERG
Newsday (NY)

 
WASHINGTON - Two years before Raed al-Banna detonated a massive car bomb in
Hilla, Iraq, that killed him and 130 people in February 2005, he tried to
get into the United States. 

But the young Jordanian national was turned away after being pulled over for
questioning by a customs agent at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in
July 2003. 

Al-Banna had been flagged by a little-known program that cross-checked his
airline reservation against a government database of terrorist telephone
numbers, addresses and credit cards, a top Homeland Security official said
yesterday. 

After taking a closer look at him because of that, the customs agent
determined that al-Banna's reason for coming was inconsistent with his visa.

"The next time, we're not going to be so lucky, potentially," said Assistant
Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker. "Because suddenly, out of the
blue, this program ... has become controversial and people are saying it's
an invasion of privacy and that we need to abolish or restrict it." 

Operating under the radar for many years, the little-known Automated
Targeting System has become hugely controversial since an obscure regulatory
notice was published in the Federal Register several weeks ago. 

"Such open-ended, haphazard data collection ... raises serious questions,"
said a letter signed by 30 groups, ranging from the American Library
Association to the First Amendment Foundation. 

Begun as a screening program for cargo and expanded later to include people,
ATS maintains a record of every person who enters the United States using
standard booking information including name, address and telephone number,
how the ticket was paid for, whether it is one-way or round-trip and whether
bags are checked.

But opponents - including privacy advocates, European travel groups and some
Democrats - say that assigning terror scores to tens of millions of people
is a potential invasion of privacy, especially because records are kept for
40 years, with no way for an individual to know what has been collected or
whether it is accurate. 

Many worry that people could be blacklisted, with no way to defend
themselves.

"We still have concerns about how they are collecting, storing and sharing
the data," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), incoming chairman of the
House Homeland Security Committee. 

But Stewart said the program was vital. Had ATS existed in 2001, it would
have identified 11 of the 19 hijackers who flew planes into buildings, he
said.

Moreover, the information collected hardly constituted a "dossier," he said.
With 400 million people coming to the United States every year, "how do we
decide who gets a closer look?" he asked. "If we questioned everybody, we'd
have planes backed up off the tarmac."

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