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Airport Security Program Fixes Reporter's 'Trusted Traveler' Card, But She Still Must Remove Shoes

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 11:07 am Updated: 03/12/2012 11:07 am

Last week, just days after this story was posted and after informing the chief spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security that the name on my Global Entry membership card was incorrect, a new corrected card arrived in the mail. Global Entry is an expedited security program for international air travelers under the auspices of Customs and Border Protection.

On Monday, in response to a separate complaint sent through the program's website, I received an automated email response that referred me to a FAQs page. My problem was not listed among the most frequently asked questions, suggesting that had I not been a correspondent for HuffPost with access to the DHS spokesman, I'd still be trying to get a new card.

On a related note, while passing through security Friday at Reagan National Airport -- where the Transportation Security Administration plans to accept Global Entry members as part of Pre-Check, another "trusted traveler" program, sometime this month -- I presented both my driver's license and my Global Entry card along with my boarding pass to the TSA officer at the checkpoint. "I'm not familiar with this," he said of the Global Entry card, even though the sister agency's program would soon be introduced at his airport.

I quickly asked for the card back. I didn't want to hold up the long line behind me. And, as I always have before, I started to take off my shoes.

WASHINGTON -- In an effort to shorten check-in lines and gain more time to focus on real threats to the traveling public, the Transportation Security Administration is now expanding the number of airports that allow for expedited security screening.

A perk for members of certain airline frequent flyer programs, Pre-Check began as a test program at seven airports in October. This month, the first of 28 airports to be added in 2012 will begin offering dedicated lanes to passengers with special bar code information embedded in their boarding passes.

Last week, some passengers at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York were allowed to go through security without removing their shoes or taking out their laptops. Later this month, the program expands to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for some Delta Airlines passengers and Chicago's O’Hare International Airport for American Airlines passengers.

Pre-Check is one of several "trusted traveler" programs run by the Department of Homeland Security. Membership is currently limited to 10 million-miler types like George Clooney's character in "Up in the Air" and other very frequent business travelers, who must be invited to join by participating airlines. The program has about 420,000 members.

Another 570,000 "trusted travelers" have paid to join one of the international travel programs run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The largest program, designed for air travelers, is called Global Entry.

Though it's been around since 2008, Global Entry is little-known outside the world of international globe trotters. It is open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well as Canadian, Mexican and Dutch nationals. Unlike Pre-Check, which relies on the airlines to vouch for their frequent flyers, Global Entry requires applicants to undergo a background check and interview before they can enroll.

Once in, they can use special kiosks that scan their passports and fingerprints. Although they are still subject to random checks, Global Entry members can usually bypass the long lines of passengers waiting to be interviewed by a customs officer at passport control. They also become automatic members of Pre-Check, which allows them to use dedicated lanes to whisk through domestic airport security.

The programs are part of the Department of Homeland Security's effort to dispense with the one-size-fits-all screening at airports and border crossings that was ramped up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and instead to adopt a risk-based system that focuses on travelers about whom little is known or whose names are on terrorist watch lists.

The move has received positive reviews from harried frequent travelers. One person who signed up for Global Entry reported on a travel blog: "I thought the interview would ask me about my patriotism, youthful indiscretions, suspicious affiliations or friendships, political beliefs, etc, but there was none of that. After all, they do a background check before the interview so they probably know what they need to already. They asked me whether I travel mostly for business or pleasure and then gave instructions on how the program works. Short, sweet, painless."

Travel industry groups have also welcomed the program. "We believe [Global Entry] is working to identify potential threats while facilitating travel for the millions of international travelers who do not pose a security risk to the United States," said Robert Bobo of the U.S. Travel Association, an industry advocacy group.

ONE TRAVELER'S STORY

As The Huffington Post's homeland security reporter, I was curious about how the department decides who is a "trusted traveler" and who is not. I also liked the idea of being able to bypass long lines at the airport and zip through security without the usual hassles. But despite being a member of every major airline rewards program and a frequent traveler for work and play, I had not been invited to join Pre-Check, probably because I spread my travel around to several airlines and didn't have enough miles on any.

I decided to apply to Global Entry instead. Of course, travelers will have different experiences based on their background and travel habits. As a journalist who has been to war zones and countries where al Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist organizations have been active, I'm probably not the typical traveler.

Still, I was interested in learning whether my application would raise any red flags. I can't say whether my experience is typical. Homeland Security declined to give details of the vetting process, citing security concerns.

The process proved relatively easy. I began at Customs and Border Protection's enrollment website, where I was asked to provide the usual information (date of birth, citizenship, employment) as well as my travel history for the last five years. After certifying that everything I filled in was true, I paid a $100 application fee by credit card and was informed, "Your application is now pending review."

A “conditional approval notification” arrived via email the next day. It instructed me to make an appointment for an interview with a customs officer.

Less than two weeks later, I drove out to Dulles International Airport, one of 22 Global Entry enrollment centers located at major airports around the country.

The CBP office was down a side hall just outside the international arrivals area, a place where I'd been many times after Middle East reporting trips and European vacations. Handing over my passport and driver's license to a uniformed CBP officer, I sat down to watch a short video about the program.

Then the interview began. Or what passed for an interview. According to the CBP website, my work-up was supposed to include "a thorough background check against criminal, law enforcement, customs, immigration, agriculture, and terrorist indices to include biometric fingerprint checks, and a personal interview with a CBP Officer."

Since I have never been arrested nor been caught sneaking wild boar sausage from Italy through customs, the officer apparently didn't have much to ask. Staring at a computer screen I couldn't see but I presumed contained my file, he asked my profession and a few other perfunctory questions that I has already answered in my application.

Then came the hard part. He told me to stick my hands, four fingers at a time and then my thumb, into a digital fingerprint scanner. Maybe I was a light touch or the machine was being balky, but it took several tries to get good images of my fingers. A little hand cream did the trick. I did wonder how well the Global Entry kiosks will read my dry fingers after my next long overseas flight.

Realizing the "interview" was about to end, I asked a few questions of my own.

What records, I wanted to know, had CBP consulted as part of its "rigorous background check"? The officer turned cagey. All that was done by a government office in Williston, Vt., he said, pointing to a P.O. box address on the letter inviting me for an interview.

Well, I replied, CBP must have checked the record of the extensive biometric screening I went through in Baghdad in 2008, when I was there as a reporter for USA Today.

Blank stare. Somewhere in a Department of Defense database is an iris scan of my brown eyes, along with my prints (including the scar on my right middle finger from when I caught it in a door as an infant) and a whole bunch of mug shots taken from different angles. Yet the customs officer appeared to know nothing about them -- or wasn't letting on if he did. Despite much discussion after the 9/11 attacks about the need to "connect the dots," the officer said that CBP did not check with the Defense Department, even though I indicated on the application that I had traveled to a war zone within the last five years.

That led to another question. Given that the federal government tracks people with certain travel patterns and has even reportedly eavesdropped on the phone calls of some reporters, I wondered whether my trips to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories might pique extra scrutiny.

If they did, no one was willing to say.

According to Homeland Security, "As part of the Global Entry application and interview, the applicant, like any other traveler entering the U.S., are asked questions on the nature and extent of their immediate or past travel history." Yet my interviewer didn't ask where I had been or why I had been there, even after thumbing through the cancelled passport I provided that included visas from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps I was given a pass because as a journalist I had a simple explanation for my travels. But it's impossible to know. Both my interviewer and a Homeland Security spokesman cited security concerns in declining to give more details about the vetting process, including which agencies and what information was checked.

Rafi Ron, a former security chief at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport who now advises airport authorities, police departments, airlines and other aviation companies, said my vetting could have been more thorough. He said that there are limits on information-sharing among government agencies and that the Defense Department may not have shared what it knew about me with CBP. "This is not a free, open space," he said.

Ron also said that even though I am a legitimate journalist working for well-known organizations, my travels should have at least raised a yellow flag "to be cleared out in the interview. ... The real professional way of doing it is going through the process and clearing out visits to countries that are of concern."

That didn't happen, and my appointment lasted no more than 20 minutes. Soon after I was back at my desk at work, my phone rang. It was the customs officer. Just calling to confirm, he said before quickly hanging up.

A week later, my "trusted traveler" card arrived in the mail. On it was the unflattering black-and-white photo the interviewer had snapped at his desk.

More troubling was the name on the card. It did not match the name on my driver's license or passport. It included the middle name I haven't used since grade school and my married name, but no "Stone" in between the two. Whoever that person is, she certainly doesn't match any of my other government-issued IDs, as required by the Transportation Security Administration to board a flight.

I have since emailed CBP asking for a new card.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Rafi Ron advises the Transportation Security Administration. Although he has advised TSA in the past, Ron now works mostly with airport authorities, police departments, airlines and other aviation companies.

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