Secure Flight Suspended

The TSA has announced that Secure Flight, its comprehensive program to match airline passangers against terrorist watch lists, has been suspended:

And because of security concerns, the government is going back to the drawing board with the program called Secure Flight after spending nearly four years and $150 million on it, the Senate Commerce Committee was told.

I have written about this program extensively, most recently here. It’s an absolute mess in every way, and doesn’t make us safer.

But don’t think this is the end. Under Section 4012 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, Congress mandated the TSA put in place a program to screen every domestic passenger against the watch list. Until Congress repeals that mandate, these postponements and suspensions are the best we can hope for. Expect it all to come back under a different name—and a clean record in the eyes of those not paying close attention—soon.

EDITED TO ADD (2/15): Ed Felton has some good commentary:

Instead of sticking to this more modest plan, Secure Flight became a vehicle for pie-in-the-sky plans about data mining and automatic identification of terrorists from consumer databases. As the program’s goals grew more ambitious and collided with practical design and deployment challenges, the program lost focus and seemed to have a different rationale and plan from one month to the next.

Posted on February 13, 2006 at 6:09 AM16 Comments


bob February 13, 2006 8:26 AM

The easy way to fix this problem is: rip the cover off the DC phone book. Then send it anonymously to the FBI saying “I overheard these people talking about hijacking an airplane”. Repeat with differing cities until the entire US is on the list. Then when airlines are unable to genrate revenue from flying empty planes congress will dump the program (if they can get enough of them to DC to have a quorum) and we will save money AND be safer.

Somebody February 13, 2006 8:51 AM

Great idea Bob … while the FBI is at it .. might as well send them phone directories from all over the world !!!

nedu February 13, 2006 8:53 AM


Solzhenitsyn discussed random denunciation. It is not an effective counter to Stalinist paranoia: They’re all guilty.

jammit February 13, 2006 10:25 AM

Well, I guess if everybody is on the No-Fly list, then I guess Secure Flight worked.
Instead of looking for certain individuals, perhaps airlines could pick people at random and prevent them from flying. I think the hit-miss ratio would improve. I have a question. Has any bad guys been caught by using Secure Flight? Oh well. The point is mute now.

eldan February 13, 2006 10:32 AM

I think Bob’s idea is a great one, but for a slightly different reason: if we put the entire DC phone book in the list, it would inconvenience the people who actually make decisions about these things. Once that happens, I doubt it would take long for something to be done to make flying less hassle.

Davi Ottenheimer February 13, 2006 11:05 AM

“Expect it all to come back under a different name — and a clean record in the eyes of those not paying close attention — soon.”

Sad but true. Without oversight and review, savvy marketing (propoganda) is generally how people are won over, not through sound engineering or even real value.

Different lipstick, same pig.

Tired and Easily Amused February 13, 2006 12:09 PM

“Once again the vampire’s been driven back into its coffin,??? [Bill Scannell, a privacy advocate who manages the Web site] said. “Whether the administration is willing to shoot it with a silver bullet is another question.???

This seems like a typical beauracratic mistake — using the solution to one problem (werewolves) in an attempt to solve another (vampires), which then, surprise surprise, doesn’t work. 🙂

Glauber Ribeiro February 13, 2006 12:55 PM

@Tired: LOL!

The current program was killed by an excess of civilian oversight. This mistake won’t be repeated in the next program.

how many roads February 13, 2006 6:17 PM

when will they realise that there is no way to win by making the world an unfriendlier place?

the terror attacks of 911 should have been a clear sign that the powerful have become too cosy and distant from the weak, of whom there are many.

the powerful cannot live without the weak on whom they feed, wasn’t this all figured out in the 60s-70s-80s?

only by giving the liberty they pay lip-service to, and lessening their grip on the booty, can the powerful contribute to fostering feelings of safety and generosity.

how many time must we say ‘the terrorists have already won’? compulsory ID this, watch-list that, security-camera the other … is just forcing those who seek liberty away from the rich and towards the shelter of the poor who have at least liberty.

a situation with many rich, powerful, xenophobes guard watchfully against the threat of many poor guided by desperate libertarians is going to lead where? i think we are finding out.

Rounin February 13, 2006 9:17 PM

Genius plan bob. Let’s devote every FBI official in existence towards investigating false leads.

Maybe they’ll end up at your door too.

bob February 14, 2006 7:50 AM

Good point. We would need a way to add names to the list without distracting the FBI; after all they have useful work to do and since the submission itself would have been a lead gathered through humint, would deserve being followed up on.

As of yesterday, there is probably “Bob.” on the list. No one who buys an airline ticket who’s first name is Bob can ever fly again. Unless they are a terrorist in which case they can merely by a ticket as “Robert.” or “Bob X.*” and they can then fly unrestricted. But even thats not a problem because the ROE now is NOBODY GETS IN THE COCKPIT. The worst they could do is blow up the plane itself – and Bin Laden himself took the teeth out of that possibility because of his overwhelming success on 9/11 – blowing up “merely” an airliner post 9/11 would probably be seen as relatively trivial and not make much news.

Eldan: Thats why I started with DC. then I realized the responsible parties probably arent listed in that book. How about we use the congressional register first?

js February 15, 2006 2:07 AM

The logical next step: when they find their No-Fly list only contains non-terrorists, they turn it into a Can-Fly list; people are only allowed to fly if they are on the list.

Zwack February 15, 2006 10:08 AM

No-Fly and Secure Flight have been combined to create a new scheme. This new scheme will cut airline’s costs and increase their revenue. Under the new scheme called No-Flight “Passengers” will pay the airline for a ticket, travel to the airport and spend several hours going through security in order to be told that either they can’t fly or that their flight has been cancelled.

The airlines will no longer need to invest in planes or fuel but will continue to employ some staff and produce record income.


geoff lane February 16, 2006 5:58 AM

The first 20 pages of the 9/11 commission report are a horror story of botched security. Nothing complicated was involved – half the hijackers were flagged for special treatment but this only covered their luggage. The knives and cutters in their pockets were not discovered because they were not checked.

You can spend billions, but unless you get the simple stuff right it makes no difference.

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