Tuesday, 10 February 2004

CAPPS-II director "retires" on eve of GAO audit report

Not waiting to face the music when the General Accounting Office reports on its audit of his CAPPS-II airline passenger surveillance and profiling program later this week, the director of the Transportation Security Adnministration’s “Office of National Risk Assessment” (ONRA), whose principal task was to develop CAPPS-II, has submitted his resignation, according to this article in today’s Washington Post .

The resignation of Ben H. Bell II leaves the TSA’s ONRA, and the attempt to get funding for implementation of CAPPS-II from an increasingly skeptical Congress, in the hands of ONRA Deputy Director Stephen Thayer , whose greatest previous political success was in escaping his own impending impeachment or criminal prosecution.

Thayer was allowed to resign his previous job as Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court in the midst of an investigation of his attempts to influence his colleagues in their consideration of his appeal of the judgement in his divorce. The Chief Justice, whom Thayer had tried to influence improperly, refused to resign and was impeached. “On March 29, 2000, Justice Thayer offered to submit his resignation from the Supreme Court in return for the Attorney General’s forebearance from presenting criminal charges against him to the grand jury,” according to the Attorney General’s report on the case.

One has to take Bell’s intent to “retire” with a grain of salt: the last time he “retired”, after a career as a Marine Corps “intelligence” (surveillance) officer, he turned right around and went back to work in a series of jobs managing intelligence programs for nominally-civilian government agencies including the INS and most recently the TSA.

Given the prevalence of (former?) Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps officers in the leadership of the TSA, perhaps it’s appropriate to ask if the rats are leaving the sinking CAPPS-II ship: the heads of both the TSA and the ONRA have now resigned, and their deputies are functioning as acting directors. No replacement directors have been nominated at either level, probably because Senate hearings on their confirmation would provide a forum for unwanted questions about CAPPS-II.

The ONRA and CAPPS-II have recently come under increasing suspicion for their possible ties to the military’s “Total Information Awareness” program.

The Post also reports that the TSA’s schedule for CAPPS-II testing has been postponed again, but without any postponement of the planned deployment date: “Testing of the [CAPPS-II] system is scheduled to begin in late spring. If successful, officials expect to start phasing in CAPPS II this summer.” If true, that probably means that the recently-begun talks with the Canadian government have quickly revealed that CAPPS-II testing can’t start without Canadian approval for the inclusion of legally protected data collected in Canada. But the lack of commensurate postponement of CAPPS-II deployment makes the schedule even less realistic or feasible that ever. There’s a limit to how fast software changes can be implemented, no matter how much money you’re prepared to throw at the problem.

As for the cost of CAPPS-II, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I came across a job posting dated January 2004 for a “CAPPS II Cost Analyst” for the ONRA. If, as indeed seems likely from everything else they have said, the TSA is only now beginning to investigate the likely cost of their plans, they are in for a rude awakening — if it doesn’t come sooner in the GAO audit report, which is due by this Sunday, 15 February 2004 (probably meaning that it will be releases Friday afternoon).

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 10 February 2004, 08:29 ( 8:29 AM)
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