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Ridge Pushes Fast-Track 'Trusted Fliers' Screening

by Bill Miller, Washington Post

Random checks of passengers in airport lines do little to bolster security, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said yesterday, maintaining that the government and the airline industry must do a better job of identifying travelers who pose the greatest risk.

Making one of his strongest pushes yet for creation of a "trusted fliers" program, Ridge predicted that many passengers would voluntarily pay a fee and agree to background checks in return for a special card designed to speed them through checkpoints.

In a meeting with reporters, Ridge provided new details for an idea he has pursued in recent months. The program, he said, could be run by the airline industry, possibly using commercial databases, to help sort out people deemed "low or no risk" of committing terrorist acts.

"I have paid, when I was a frequent traveler, an annual fee to an airline to get access to coffee and a stale Danish as I waited for a connection," Ridge said. "I think people would submit and pay [for convenience], share that information about themselves. You can double-check it. And you can make the rational, responsible assessment as to the likelihood of these people being terrorists."

But so far, Ridge has not achieved a consensus on the trusted-flier idea. John W. Magaw, chief of the Transportation Security Administration, has said he is wary of any proposal that would allow someone to get through airport checkpoints without a full security inspection. In testimony on Capitol Hill, Magaw said that a patient terrorist could spend years building up a legitimate background to circumvent security.

The Air Transport Association of America, the nation's leading airline trade group, has endorsed the program, but wants the government to manage it and issue the cards. The government has better databases and expertise, officials said. "We're not law enforcement. We're not intelligence agencies," said ATA Vice President Michael D. Wascom.

Despite recurring complaints about long, unpredictable lines at security checkpoints, some in Congress are skeptical of Ridge's plan, too. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said she agreed with Ridge that "we need a smarter system," but questioned the airlines' ability to administer it.

Harman, who recently had to take her shoes off twice before boarding a flight at New York's LaGuardia Airport, took issue with Ridge's contention that the random checks are of little use, saying they add another layer of security.

"I think people are trying very hard to get it right," Harman said.

Ridge has advocated a similar fast-track approach to other homeland security efforts. Last week, he helped unveil a Customs Service project for companies that agree to meet tighter cargo security standards. Firms that sign up are given the opportunity to import their goods and equipment faster across border checkpoints.

Some commuters who travel across the U.S. border with Canada also can avoid delays by agreeing to undergo background checks.

Ridge said a trusted-fliers program, still in the early stages of development, would complement the Transportation Security Administration's efforts to tighten security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Congress has set a Dec. 31 deadline for putting federal baggage screeners and bomb detection machines into 429 U.S. airports. By pre-screening trusted fliers, Ridge said, the government could focus that technology -- as well as extra security checks at airline gates -- on the rest of the passengers.

Ridge has repeatedly questioned the way that people are selected for more thorough security procedures, expressing empathy recently for a 67-year-old grandmother who was singled out. He said the checks should be used for those who pose the greatest risk.

"As I take a look at the challenge we have, just about everywhere, whether you're at a border or you're at an airport, it's really about risk management," Ridge said.

"You have 285 million Americans and we're going through a process now at airports of random checks," he added. "I've got to tell you . . . I don't think random checks enhance security very much at airports. As part of an overall mix, they may not be a bad idea. But I think we have to bring the same kind of attention to people at our airports as we do to try identifying weapons."

According to Ridge, a trusted-fliers program does exactly that.

"You've got people who fly constantly," Ridge said, citing statistics that show 20 percent of the airlines' passengers account for half the miles traveled. "If we gave the consumer the opportunity to share information with the airline so that they could make an assessment as to whether or not this individual was a high-risk, low-risk, or no-risk threat of being a terrorist, that would substantially enhance security at the airports."

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