Airline system used to screen suspected terrorists evokes ire
The ACLU files suit on behalf of two women who are routinely pulled over because of their names.
NEW YORK — They have a list, in fact two. And they're checking them now every time a commercial flight leaves a US airport.
If your name is David Nelson, Jan Adams, or Enrique Hernandez, or if your last name begins with the letters Mus, you could find yourself pulled over at the check-in desk for extra security scrutiny. Then, more than likely, your boarding pass will be stamped with a big red "S," indicating you're a potential security threat.
These lists of people deemed potentially dangerous to civil aviation, which the federal government created in the 1990s to enhance security, were expanded dramatically in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. One reportedly contains hundreds of names of people who are never allowed to board a plane because they are known terrorist threats. The other is a list of "selectees," reportedly made up of hundreds of thousands of people who the FBI, intelligence, and other law-enforcement agencies believe should be given extra scrutiny.
For security reasons, the government refuses to reveal who's on the lists and if there's any way to get off. But one result is that thousands of Americans - from prominent doctors to retired law-enforcement officials to peace activists - face scrutiny every time they board a plane simply because they have a name that's similar to someone else's.
The files, known collectively as the "No Fly Lists," have been called everything from a necessary inconvenience to Kafkaesque. The American Civil Liberties Union is going a step further. It's filed suit on behalf of two women peace activists who are routinely pulled over. They contend such secret lists can put a chill on free speech by intimidating people with controversial views.
In addition, the lists have raised the ire of some security experts, who contend they create a false sense of security because it's too easy for a terrorist to steal an identity, or just change a name.
"The benefits are minimal [from a security perspective], but the costs are very high in a free society," says Andrew Thomas, an aviation-security analyst in Cleveland and author of "Aviation Insecurity." "It takes money and resources away from things we really ought to be doing."
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which was created after Sept. 11 to improve aviation security, is sensitive to such criticism. TSA spokesman Brian Turmail defends the list as one necessary component of a larger overall system of increased security.
But he acknowledges that the "No Fly" program "needs improvement." Although the lists are compiled at the TSA, they are implemented by the airlines, all of which have different reservation software that pick out names differently. Thus, the confusion for the David Nelsons of the world.
In the short term, the TSA has created a number to call - 866-289-9673 - which can allow individuals to get on a "Fly List." In the long term, Mr. Turmail believes the implementation of an advanced Computer Assisted Passenger Screening system (CAPS II) will work out the larger kinks. Such a system would use other passenger data, such as home address, telephone number, and date of birth, to distinguish between the dangerous David Nelsons and all the rest.
"We're building the CAPS II with a deliberate fire wall to protect the rights and privacy of the traveling public," says Turmail.
But Jan Adams, one of the peace activists on whose behalf the ACLU is suing, worries that adding data to the system will create more confusion - and more violations of innocent people's civil liberties. She wants the government to be held accountable and to reveal how people get on the list, as well how they can get off.
"We will have lost core values of constitutional democracy if we end up in a society of surveillance and secret scrutiny based on secret lists and unaccountable government controls," says Ms. Adams, who's concerned she was on the "selectee" list because of her antiwar activities. "Then the terrorists will have won."