GAO Review of the Department of Homeland Security's Certification of the Secure Flight Program--Cost and Schedule Estimates

GAO-10-535R: Published: Apr 5, 2010. Publicly Released: Apr 5, 2010.

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The matching of airline passenger information against terrorist watchlist records (watchlist matching) is a frontline defense against acts of terrorism that target the nation's civil aviation system. In general, passengers identified as matches to the No-Fly list are prohibited from boarding commercial flights, while those matched to the Selectee list are required to undergo additional screening. Historically, airline passenger prescreening against watchlist records has been performed by commercial air carriers. As required by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has developed an advanced passenger prescreening program--known as Secure Flight--to assume from air carriers the function of matching passenger information against terrorist watchlist records. Since fiscal year 2004, TSA has received $358 million in appropriated funds for the development and implementation of Secure Flight, according to program officials. Also, since fiscal year 2004, GAO has been mandated to assess the development and implementation of the Secure Flight program. We have reported on numerous challenges the program has faced, including those related to protecting passenger privacy, completing performance testing, fully defining and testing security requirements, and establishing reliable cost and schedule estimates, among other things. We have made recommendations to address these challenges, and TSA has generally agreed with them and has taken corrective actions.

TSA has generally achieved the statutory condition related to the appropriateness of Secure Flight's life-cycle cost and schedule estimates, and thus has generally achieved all 10 statutory conditions related to the development and implementation of the program. Although the program's cost and schedule estimates do not fully meet all related best practices, TSA has demonstrated that it completed all key activities and our overall assessment found that the agency had substantially satisfied best practices for developing the cost and schedule estimates. According to TSA, the Secure Flight program's estimated life-cycle cost is $1.36 billion through fiscal year 2020. TSA plans to complete assumption of the watchlist-matching function from air carriers for all domestic flights in May 2010 and to assume this function for all international flights departing to and from the United States by December 2010. If effectively maintained and updated, TSA's cost and schedule estimates should help ensure oversight and accountability of the Secure Flight program and provide assurance that it will be delivered within estimated costs and time frames.

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