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Archive for December 1st, 2006

Millions of Travelers Rated for Terror Potential


WASHINGTON (Dec. 1) – Without their knowledge, millions of Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders in the past four years have been assigned scores generated by U.S. government computers rating the risk that the travelers are terrorists or criminals.

The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.

The government calls the system critical to national security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some privacy advocates call it one of the most intrusive and risky schemes yet mounted in the name of anti-terrorism efforts.

Virtually every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is scored by the Homeland Security Department’s Automated Targeting System, or ATS. The scores are based on ATS’ analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

The use of the program on travelers was quietly disclosed earlier this month when the department put a notice detailing ATS in the Federal Register, a fine-print compendium of federal rules. The few civil liberties lawyers who had heard of ATS and even some law enforcement officers said they had thought it was only used to screen cargo.

The Homeland Security Department called the program “one of the most advanced targeting systems in the world” and said the nation’s ability to spot criminals and other security threats “would be critically impaired without access to this data.”

But to David Sobel, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group devoted to civil liberties in cyberspace: “It’s probably the most invasive system the government has yet deployed in terms of the number of people affected.”

Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists. Based on all the information available to them, federal agents turn back about 45 foreign criminals a day at U.S. borders, according to Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection spokesman Bill Anthony. He could not say how many were spotted by ATS.

“Homeland Security ought to focus on the simple things it can do and stop trying to build these overly complex jury-rigged systems,” said Barry Steinhardt, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, citing problems the agency has had developing a computerized screening system for domestic air travelers.

That data-mining project – now known as Secure Flight – caused a furor two years ago in Congress. Lawmakers barred its implementation until it can pass 10 tests for accuracy and privacy protection.

In comments to the government about ATS, Sobel said, “Some individuals will be denied the right to travel and many the right to travel free of unwarranted interference.”

Sobel said in the interview that the government notice also raises the possibility that faulty risk assessments could cost innocent people jobs in shipping or travel, government contracts, licenses or other benefits.

The government notice says some or all of the ATS data about an individual may be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring decisions and in granting licenses, security clearances, contracts or other benefits. In some cases, the data may be shared with courts, Congress and even private contractors.

“Everybody else can see it, but you can’t,” Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration lawyer who teaches at Cornell Law school, said in an interview.

But Jayson P. Ahern, an assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said the ATS ratings simply allow agents at the border to pick out people not previously identified by law enforcement as potential terrorists or criminals and send them for additional searches and interviews.

“It does not replace the judgments of officers” in reaching a final decision about a traveler, Ahern said in an interview Thursday.

This targeting system goes beyond traditional watch lists, Ahern said. Border agents compare arrival names with watch lists separately from the ATS analysis.

In a privacy impact assessment posted on its Web site this week, Homeland Security said ATS is aimed at discovering high-risk individuals who “may not have been previously associated with a law enforcement action or otherwise be noted as a person of concern to law enforcement.”

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Phoenix airport to test X-ray screening


PHOENIX – Sky Harbor International Airport here will test a new federal screening system that takes X-rays of passenger’s bodies to detect concealed explosives and other weapons.

The technology, called backscatter, has been around for several years but has not been widely used in the U.S. as an anti-terrorism tool because of privacy concerns.

The Transportation Security Administration said it has found a way to refine the machine’s images so that the normally graphic pictures can be blurred in certain areas while still being effective in detecting bombs and other threats.

The agency is expected to provide more information about the technology later this month but said one machine will be up and running at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4 by Christmas.

The security agency’s Web site indicates that the technology will be used initially as a secondary screening measure, meaning that only those passengers who first fail the standard screening process will be directed to the X-ray area.
Even then, passengers will have the option of choosing the backscatter or a traditional pat-down search.

A handful of other U.S. airports will have the X-rays machines in place by early 2007 as part of a nationwide pilot program, TSA officials said.

The technology already is being used in prisons and by drug enforcement agents, and has been tested at London’s Heathrow Airport.

The security agency says the machines will be effective in helping detect plastic or liquid explosives and other non-metallic weapons that can be missed by standard metal detectors.

Some say the high-resolution images — which clearly depict the outline of the passenger’s body, plus anything attached to it, such as jewelry — are too invasive.

But the TSA said the X-rays will be set up so that the image can be viewed only by a security officer in a remote location. Other passengers, and even the agent at the checkpoint, will not have access to the picture.

In addition, the system will be configured so that the X-ray will be deleted as soon as the individual steps away from the machine. It will not be stored or available for printing or transmitting, agency spokesman Nico Melendez said.

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In his latest “Special Comment” on MSNBC’s Countdown, Keith Olbermann criticizes former House Speaker and potential ’08 presidential contender Newt Gingrich’s recent speech outlining his vision for America and the world–one that has ominous overtones of restrictions on freedom of speech and, as Olbermann describes it, amounts to fearmongering by “a cynical mind.”

Olbermann says of Gingrich, “He offered the time-tested excuse trotted out by our demagogues since even before the Republic was founded: widespread death, of Americans, in America, possibly at the hands of Americans. But updated, now, to include terrorists using the Internet for recruitment. End result — ‘losing a city.’

“The colonial English defended their repression with words like these. And so did the slave states. And so did the policemen who shot strikers. … And so did those who interned Japanese-Americans. And so did those behind the Red Scare…”

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Court Hears Global Warming Case

The Supreme Court yesterday cautiously confronted for the first time the issue of global warming, hearing a challenge to the Bush administration’s refusal to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases in new vehicles.

Twelve states, led by Massachusetts and joined by the District of Columbia, are objecting to the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to decline to issue emissions standards for new cars and trucks. They and the environmental organizations that support them say the standards should be the first step in a broader effort to reduce carbon dioxide and other gases that they say are harming the atmosphere and leading to global warming and rising sea levels.

But they faced a court sometimes skeptical about whether the remedy they seek would make much difference in the long run, and whether they can even show they are facing the kind of imminent harm that is required before they can press their case.

“I mean,” asked Justice Antonin Scalia, “when is the predicted cataclysm?”

Scalia was one of several justices to remark on a lack of scientific expertise during an hour of questioning that touched on whether the states have “standing” to challenge the EPA’s refusal, the level of evidence proving the existence of global warming and its causes, and even whether unilateral action by the United States to reduce greenhouse gases would hamper negotiations with other countries on the issue.

The debate inside the court is echoed outside the chamber. Former vice president Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” increased public awareness of the issue. And the Democrats who won control of Congress this month have said they will make the issue a priority: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is in line to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said a failure to limit greenhouse gases will lead to “economic decline and environmental ruin.” She would replace Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has called global warming a hoax.

Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General James R. Milkey told the court that 200 miles of the state’s coastline are threatened by rising seas, a result of global warming.

“The harm does not suddenly spring up in the year 2100; it plays out continuously over time,” Milkey said in answer to Scalia’s question. “Once these gases are emitted . . . they stay a long time — the laws of physics take over.”

Milkey faced skeptical questioning from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the court’s newest members, but the most sustained — and entertaining — interrogation came from Scalia.

At one point, he acknowledged the role of carbon dioxide as a pollutant in the air but wondered about it being a pollutant in the “stratosphere.”

“Respectfully, Your Honor, it is not the stratosphere. It’s the troposphere,” Milkey said.

“Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I’m not a scientist,” Scalia said to laughter. “That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”

Milkey had already said that the court need not pass judgment on the science of climate change to find that the EPA did not do its job when deciding not to regulate new vehicle emissions.

The case started in 1999, when an environmental group, the International Center for Technology Assessment, and others petitioned the EPA to set greenhouse gas emissions standards for new vehicles.

In 2003, the agency denied the petition, saying said that it lacked statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, even though the agency in previous administrations had held that it did. Further, the agency said, even if it did have authority, it was not required to use it.

The agency decided, according to Deputy Solicitor General Gregory C. Garre, “now is not the time to exercise such authority, in light of the substantial scientific uncertainty surrounding global climate change and the ongoing studies designed to address those uncertainties.”

Even if the court sides with the states, it is only being asked to remand the issue back to the EPA with specifications on what to look at in deciding whether to issue the emissions standards. And both sides agree that vehicle admissions in the United States amount to only 6 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions; tougher standards on new vehicles would only moderately reduce that.

But the court’s decision could affect other efforts by environmentalists to force action on emissions from power plants — stalled in the courts — and shed light on the appropriateness of individual states’ actions. California, for instance, has passed greenhouse gas emissions standards that are to go into effect in 2009 but are being challenged by industry.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said a change of heart by the EPA could set off a string of similarly small decisions by other agencies, “each of which has an impact, and lo and behold, Cape Cod is saved.” He seemed most sympathetic to the states’ case, along with Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who as usual asked no questions, is presumed to be in line with Scalia, Roberts and Alito. That leaves Justice Anthony M. Kennedy as a pivotal vote in whether the states have proven they have standing for the case to go forward.

He noted Milkey’s “perhaps reassuring statement” that the court does not have to make a judgment about global warming. “But,” Kennedy asked, “don’t we have to do that in order to decide the standing argument, because there’s no injury if there’s not global warming?”

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