CLEAR, the skip-the-line airport service, is waging a swampy influence campaign in Washington to push legislation that will let its members skip the line even faster, but this time at the expense of sensitive national security information. Yet serious concerns are being raised that CLEAR’s past track record of handling sensitive security protocols is anything but stellar.
In a 2014 lawsuit, a former employee, Andre Jones, alleged that CLEAR was “permitting unauthorized passengers through [Clear’s] checkpoints” at Orlando International Airport. Per the lawsuit: “Jones reported security breaches to the highest levels of [CLEAR’s] management and cooperated in a TSA investigation into Defendant’s practices.When confronted by these security lapses, CLEAR’s leadership allegedly told the employees to continue fast-tracking their people through, even going around TSA personnel as needed...Parker Bellaire, TSA assistant federal security director for inspections, observed [Clear’s] employees performing manual overrides, permitting unverified passengers to proceed through [Clear’s] security line instead of escorting passengers to the TSA verification station.”
Jones had apparently told the TSA that he was “following orders” and when the TSA wrote it all up in a letter, CLEAR’s CEO, Caryn Seidman-Becker, called Jones and chewed him out. Then CLEAR decided to move to terminate his employment. By the account given in the lawsuit, Jones was simply pointing out a serious security lapse at one of America’s biggest airports—for which CLEAR raked him over the coals and then fired him. He filed suit under the Florida Private Whistleblower’s Act.
Fast forward to 2020, and CLEAR is using its corporate lobbyists and political influence to fund the campaigns of high profile Members of Congress and Senators like Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sen. Roger Wicker, who are now sponsoring a bill to exclusively benefit CLEAR, one that will dramatically expand the company’s access to sensitive information used to screen passengers for airline boarding. In addition to the donations to key members of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, CLEAR’s president also made donations to the campaign of Joe Biden, and is paying well-known Washington influence groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Travel Association to push the legislation.
“The Registered Traveler Act of 2020” (SB 3730) is a Senate bill that is for the benefit of one singular company - Seidman-Becker’s CLEAR. If advanced, the bill would give CLEAR alone a huge boost and advantage in the marketplace by providing it access to a sensitive government database that would then allow CLEAR-registered travelers to skip the all-important TSA document verification process.
The legislation would enable CLEAR passengers to skip a TSA process known as Travel Document Checker (TDC). That would allow a CLEAR passenger to go straight from the beginning of the security line to bag check without having their documents or paperwork scanned by a government official. The TSA administrator, David Pekoske, raised concerns about CLEAR running this service back in late 2019. As he argued in a letter,
We also oppose granting CLEAR or other private entities authority to perform the TDC function. In addition to verifying and validating the passenger's identity, the TDC is responsible for ensuring that passengers are directed to the correct screening lane and receive the appropriate level of screening according to the traveler's risk profile. This process is vital as TSA implements the checkpoint screening and TSA Pre-check requirements under the TSA Modernization Act. The TDC also must resolve any discrepancies, seek further assistance from law enforcement as necessary, and escalate matters to a supervisor in appropriate circumstances. These functions are critical to aviation security, an integral component of the screening process, and inherently governmental. As such, we strongly believe the TDC function must be performed only by federal employees dedicated exclusively to the mission of ensuring transportation security.
The administrator didn’t argue that CLEAR didn’t have a role to play—only that the final back-stop for American security at airports ought to be government officials trained and deployed for that purpose. As the administrator pointed out, CLEAR passengers “are not vetted against terrorism watch lists and do not undergo a criminal background check.”
The TSA administrator sent his 2019 note in response to moves by Senators to give CLEAR access to America’s Secure Flight database. This houses information about American passengers, and it includes the sensitive “no-fly list.” The administrator responded that handing this information over to private companies like CLEAR carried risks that the Senate ought to be aware of and take seriously.
Even amidst the serious security breaches by CLEAR and the concerns of the TSA Administrator, CLEAR is also set to begin implementation of a massive government contract they were awarded last year known as an “OTA.” Under this contract, CLEAR will expand the types of services they are providing at airports.
This begs the question - why would a Republican-led Senate advance a bill that the Trump Administration already opposes on security and privacy grounds - especially since that bill is to the benefit of one singular private company with a history of disregarding the most basic security procedures, that happens to be helping fund the Biden for President campaign? Separately, why would the government award CLEAR the ability to assume an even greater expansion of services under a new government contract with its track record? Seems like the swamp might require some additional draining.