HomeFeaturesDailyBriefingsRapidReconSpecial ReportsAbout Us

Airline Security: Trimming the "No-Fly" List

How many people have been a “false positive” on the TSA’s no fly list and then inconvenienced? The purpose of the government’s “no-fly” list is to identify people considered too dangerous to be allowed on commercial flights. Apparently, thousands of people have been mistakenly linked to names on terror watch lists when they crossed the border, boarded commercial airliners or were stopped for traffic violations, a government report said Friday. TERRORIST WATCH LIST SCREENING - Efforts to Help Reduce Adverse Effects on the Public

Annually, millions of individuals—from international travelers to visa applicants—are screened for terrorism links against the watch list. At times, a person is misidentified because of name similarities, although the exact number is unknown. In some cases, agencies can verify the person is not a match by comparing birth dates or other data with watch list records, but agencies do not track the number. In other cases, they ask TSC for help. From December 2003 (when TSC began operations) to January 2006, agencies sent tens of thousands of names to TSC, and about half were misidentifications, according to TSC. While the total number of people misidentified may be substantial, it likely represents a fraction of all people screened. Even so, misidentifications can lead to delays, intensive questioning and searches, missed flights, or denied entry at the border. Misidentifications most commonly occur with names that are identical or similar to names on the watch list. To rapidly screen names against the watch list, agencies use computerized programs that account for differences due to misspellings and other variations. TSC has ongoing initiatives to improve computerized matching programs and the quality of watch list records. Also, CBP and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have established procedures designed to expedite frequently misidentified persons through screening, after confirming they are not on the watch list.

TSA chief Kip Hawley last week announced that his office would begin a comprehensive review of the watch list. At least half of the names on the list (estimated at between 50,000 and 350,000) are expected to be eliminated.

Hawley hopes that, if coupled to the emerging Secure Flight passenger screening program , the reduction of the list should make a difference.

There will still be passengers who feel “put upon” by the TSA and the no fly list. For this, the DHS has created a new program called the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program that will commence on February 20. This program will be the central processing point for all inquiries about Homeland Security agencies' databases.

According to Hawley, the TSA is doing a "name- by-name review"

The No Fly List aims to identify people considered too dangerous to be allowed on commercial flights. Another list, the Selectee List, cites people who need to undergo more vigorous security screening. That list also will be pared by about half.

The GAO Report is lengthy but among the observations is:

Annually, hundreds of millions of individuals—international travelers, airline passengers, and visa applicants—are screened against relevant portions of the Terrorist Screening Center’s consolidated watch list. The number of persons misidentified during terrorist watch list screening may be substantial in absolute terms but likely represents a small fraction of the total screenings. Nonetheless, misidentifications resulting from terrorist watch list screening can affect the respective individuals in various ways, with perhaps the most common situation involving delays and related inconveniences experienced by travelers.

These misidentifications will include people of similar names who are pulled aside because someone else is on the watch list. A clear example of this is Mrs. Catherine Stevens wife of Senator Ted Stevens, and the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, who is/was on the watch list. Take the case of Kiernan O'Dwyer a pilot for American Airlines . He is one of the many people who fall into the category of false positives because his name and birthday nearly match that of a leader of the Irish Republican Army. But because of this misidentification, he was stopped by Customs agents 80 times in the last three years. Even with a letter attesting to his identity, O’Dwyer continued to be stopped (agents claiming that the letter could have been a forgery), and gave up flying internationally.

Well, back in October, CBS Sixty Minutes did a segment on the watch list. Some of what they found is intriguing and maybe distressing:

· The list was 540 pages long;

· Before September 11th the list contained the names of 16 people. Today, there are over 44,000 with an additional 75,000 people listed as people who should be pulled aside for additional screening (these enormous numbers were explained simply as the list resulted from a massive “data dump” following September 11th);

· At that time, the names of most of the September 11th hijackers were on the list despite being dead for five years (the response being that just because a person was dead, it didn’t mean that their identity had also died with them – interesting point), and yet, such luminaries as Zacarias Moussaoui and Saddam Hussein were no where to be found;

· Some names of internationally notable people were on the list – the explanation being that there clearly might be other people with the same names. And the same holds for people who have the misfortune of sharing the same name with people who are correctly on the list (often because their name was used as an alias by a potential terrorist).

There will continue to be confusions. Recently the U.S. announced that it would keep Canadian Maher Arar on the no-fly list despite the Canadian government’s insistence that neither he nor his family are security risks.

Arar, a Canadian engineer, was detained in New York in 2002 and sent to Syria, where he was imprisoned for more than a year and tortured into making false confessions of terrorist involvement. He has become the best-known case of the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition, which involves sending a foreigner to a third country that is known to use torture.

So the debate continues. To a great degree the misidentification problem results from the multiple data bases that now exist, and then inability or unwillingness) to share information among various agencies or jurisdictions. On the one hand, you have American citizens, law abiding citizens at that, being inconvenienced or worse when traveling by airplane. Some are even being banned from flying as discussed. And yet, where do you draw the line when it comes to caution and safety of the flying public. I don’t travel enough by plane these days to worry too much about it. I opt for ultimate safety, screening and security when I, or one of my loved ones or friends is on a plane. I guess I might feel a bit differently if my name was “C. Stevens.”