Aviation Security:

TSA Has Completed Key Activities Associated with Implementing Secure Flight, but Additional Actions Are Needed to Mitigate Risks

GAO-09-292: Published: May 13, 2009. Publicly Released: May 13, 2009.

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To enhance aviation security, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) developed a program--known as Secure Flight--to assume from air carriers the function of matching passenger information against terrorist watch-list records. In accordance with a mandate in the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2008, GAO's objective was to assess the extent to which TSA met the requirements of 10 statutory conditions related to the development of the Secure Flight program. GAO is required to review the program until all 10 conditions are met. In September 2008, DHS certified that it had satisfied all 10 conditions. To address this objective, GAO (1) identified key activities related to each of the 10 conditions; (2) identified federal guidance and best practices that are relevant to successfully meeting each condition; (3) analyzed whether TSA had demonstrated, through program documentation and oral explanation, that the guidance was followed and best practices were met; and (4) assessed the risks associated with not fully following applicable guidance and meeting best practices.

As of April 2009, TSA had generally achieved 9 of the 10 statutory conditions related to the development of the Secure Flight program and had conditionally achieved 1 condition (TSA had defined plans, but had not completed all activities for this condition). Also, TSA's actions completed and those planned have reduced the risks associated with implementing the program. Although DHS asserted that TSA had satisfied all 10 conditions in September 2008, GAO completed its initial assessment in January 2009 and found that TSA had not demonstrated Secure Flight's operational readiness and that the agency had generally not achieved 5 of the 10 statutory conditions. Consistent with the statutory mandate, GAO continued to review the program and, in March 2009, provided a draft of this report to DHS for comment. In the draft report, GAO noted that TSA had made significant progress and had generally achieved 6 statutory conditions, conditionally achieved 3 conditions, and had generally not achieved 1 condition. After receiving the draft report, TSA took additional actions and provided GAO with documentation to demonstrate progress related to 4 conditions. Thus, GAO revised its assessment in this report. Related to the condition that addresses the efficacy and accuracy of search tools, TSA had not yet developed plans to periodically assess the performance of the Secure Flight system's name-matching capabilities, which would help ensure that the system is working as intended. GAO will continue to review the Secure Flight program until all 10 conditions are generally achieved.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Please contact the Director listed above for details on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To mitigate future risks of performance shortfalls and strengthen management of the Secure Flight program moving forward, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration to periodically assess the performance of the Secure Flight system's matching capabilities and results to determine whether the system is accurately matching watch-listed individuals while minimizing the number of false positives--consistent with the goals of the program; document how this assessment will be conducted and how its results will be measured; and use these results to determine whether the system settings should be modified.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Please contact the Director listed above for details on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that passenger prescreening is working as intended, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration to conduct outreach to air carriers--particularly carriers in states with unique transportation needs--to determine whether modifications to the CAPPS rules and related security amendment have achieved their intended effect.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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