Desperately seeking Dave

The setting: any major airport in America. The situation: security agents on high alert for perpetrators of in-flight mayhem. The solution: seize potential miscreants before they can act. Use modern investigative methodology to zero in on passengers who exhibit some specific clue that might imply terrorist tendencies. Perhaps the tip-off is a sinister-sounding name such as Osama, Saddam, or David Nelson.

Yes, for reasons that seem to be as elusive as former Iraqi tyrants, guys named David Nelson have been getting stopped, questioned, frisked, and then questioned some more in their attempts to engage in commercial air travel during the past year.

I realize this isn't a new controversy. Complaints about innocent air travelers pulled aside and interrogated like captured spies have focused a lot of attention on how the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) works to keep evildoers from getting airborne. But the David Nelson syndrome has raised new questions about a software system called CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System).

Not much about CAPPS has been revealed because, in the complex quest for homeland security, the government doesn't want enemies to get any shred of information that might help them slip past our defenses. A common belief circulating around terminals and boarding areas is that CAPPS spits out a list of names that require extra scrutiny. But the existence of such a list, and who might be on it, is a subject that generates intriguing, though not very definitive, sound bites from official insiders.

In one recent news story, TSA spokesman Nico Melendez denied that the name David Nelson appeared on any list of possible troublemakers. In fact, Mr. Melendez added, the method used by the TSA to prescreen passengers is "very dynamic and always changing. It's really not even a list at all." Now there's a statement that'll keep the axis of evil, or what's left of it, way off balance.

For me, the most disturbing aspect of this misguided name game is how it reached all the way to the top personality. Yes, David Nelson, son of Ozzie and Harriet, was stopped last December by a ticket agent at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. According to witnesses, the agent had no clue that he was detaining a member of America's most famous television family.

If we're truly serious about defeating Al Qaeda and others plotting against us, it'd be nice if the agencies leading the charge could make sure their troops have some remedial basic training in pop culture. Shouldn't the folks guarding us have a general idea of who's on the home team? For starters, I suggest that all airline security personnel be tested immediately to see if they are savvy enough to recognize other celebrity Davids such as David Soul, David Carradine, David Brenner, Davy Jones.

Of course, there's always the possibility that rumors and speculation are exactly what the TSA wants to encourage. Some honcho may figure it this way: Keep the passengers emotionally preoccupied by prodding them to a collective state of anger and confusion. Without such distractions, they might just sit around and engage in a lot of needless worrying.

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