DHS defends border terror scoring system

Dec. 27, 2006 at 11:35 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Homeland security officials are defending a controversial border screening program from charges it broke congressional restrictions on risk assessments.

The outgoing ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Wisc., said earlier this month that the Automatic Targeting System, or ATS, a risk-based assessment tool used by border officials to screen people coming into the country, appeared to be in violation of a congressional funding ban.

A provision of the 2007 Homeland Security Appropriations law forbids any spending to develop or test algorithms that assign terrorism risk scores to passengers whose names are not on government watch lists.

But Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker told a recent seminar in Washington that the use of ATS was in line with the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission. Democrats have pledged to pass legislation within the first few working days of next year's Congress to implement what they say are the commission's remaining unimplemented proposals.

"If we had not already built the Automated Targeting System," Baker said, it would have been part of the legislative package. "The reason Congress doesn't have to do that in the next Congress is Congress has already done that. It's already authorized us to gather exactly the information that we're gathering for the Automated Targeting System."

Baker said the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, passed in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, "requires airlines to share reservation data about all U.S.-bound passengers ... This is the information that goes into the Automated Targeting System."

Department of Homeland Security Spokesman Russ Knocke told technology Web site ZDNet.com the appropriations language applied only to a separate program -- Secure Flight, a screening system for aviation being developed by the Transportation Security Administration.

The language refers to "passengers" Knocke said. "ATS does not focus on passengers attempting to board airplanes; it focuses on determining whether to admit individuals who present themselves at the border, by whatever means," he said.

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