Even if Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab had never boarded that Christmas flight from Amsterdam to Detroit wearing explosive underpants, a passage on page 17 of a report published in July by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security would still be eye-popping.
"Not all known or reasonably suspected terrorists are prohibited from boarding an aircraft, or are subject to additional security screening prior to boarding an aircraft," says the passage.
More than eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, people boarding commercial flights in the United States -- and sometimes those boarding international flights bound for the United States -- are still not screened against the government's full Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB).
This is not an oversight. It is a policy.
The TSDB, authorized by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 11 signed by President Bush in 2004, was specifically produced -- in the words of the directive itself -- "to detect and interdict individuals known or reasonably suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism ('terrorism suspects') and terrorist activities." It is, according to the DHS IG, "the U.S. government's consolidated watch list of all known or reasonably suspected terrorists."
When DHS decided to launch its "Secure Flight" program so that the Transportation Security Administration would directly screen both domestic and international air passengers against watch lists -- rather than rely on airlines to do it -- there was some concern that TSA would not be checking air passengers against the full TSDB but only against two subsets of the TSDB. These subsets were the "No Fly" list and the "Selectee" list.
The former is a list of names drawn from the TSDB that the government has decided should never be allowed to board a plane. The latter is another list of names drawn from the TSDB that the government has decided should be automatically subjected to greater scrutiny before they are allowed to board a plane.