May 4, 2006

TSA Terrorist Watch List SNAFUs

In the post 9-11 USA, you can never be certain who may be a terrorist.

Wired News has discovered that the Transportation Security (sic) Administration (TSA) routinely places people on the terrorist watch list whom less well-trained gendarmerie might not find suspicious.

Newly released government documents show that even having a high-level security clearance won't keep you off the Transportation Security Administration's Kafkaesque terrorist watch list, where you'll suffer missed flights and bureaucratic nightmares.

  • A State Department diplomat who protested that "I fly 100,000 miles a year and am tired of getting hassled at Dulles airport -- and airports worldwide -- because my name apparently closely resembles that of a terrorist suspect."
  • An 82-year-old veteran who says he's never even had a traffic ticket.
  • A person with an Energy Department security clearance.
  • A technical director at a science and technology company who has been working with the Pentagon on chemical and biological weapons defense.
  • A U.S. Navy officer who has been enlisted since 1984.
  • A high-ranking government employee with a better-than-top-secret clearance who is also a U.S. Army Reserve major.
  • A federal employee traveling on government business who says the watch list matching "has resulted in ridiculous delays at the airports, despite my travel order, federal ID and even my federal passport."
  • An active-duty Army officer who had served four combat tours (including one in Afghanistan) and who holds a top-secret clearance.
  • A retired U.S. Army officer and antiterrorism/force-protection officer with expertise on weapons of mass destruction who was snared when he was put back on active-duty status while flying on a ticket paid for by the Army.
  • A former Pentagon employee and current security-cleared U.S. Postal Service contractor.
  • A Continental Airlines flight-crew member traveling as a passenger, who complained to TSA, "If I am safe enough to work on a plane then I should be fine to be a passenger sleeping."

Currently, individuals who want to clear their names have to submit several notarized copies of their identification. Then, if they're lucky, TSA might check their information against details in the classified database, add them to a cleared list and provide them with a letter attesting to their status.

More than 28,000 individuals had filed the paperwork by October 2005, the latest figures available, according to TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa. She says the system works. "We work rigorously to resolve delays caused by misidentifications," Kudwa says.

Citing national security, Kudwa declined to state how many of those 28,000 were ultimately placed on the cleared list, nor would she say how many names are on the no-fly and "selectee" lists or what the selection criteria for those lists are. Those on the no-fly list are banned from air travel and are likely to be arrested at the airport if they attempt to fly, while those on the selectee list face additional scrutiny at the airport.

The watch list is still not very accurate, according to 31-year-old Massachusetts resident Bethan Brome Lilja.

Two weeks ago, Lilja finally grew tired of her and her son's continual selection for extra screening and contacted the TSA call center. An employee named Eva told Lilja that the FBI was looking for someone with her name, and advised her to watch what she was saying since the call was recorded and "some guys might come knocking on your door," Lilja told Wired News.

"I interpreted that as a threat," says Lilja, a full-time mother and entrepreneur. "When I call a government agency to ask for help and they tell me someone might come knock on my door, you have to take it seriously."...

The TSA's lists are only a subset of the larger, unified terrorist watch list, which consists of 250,000 people associated with terrorists, and an additional database of 150,000 less-detailed records, according to a recent media briefing by Terrorist Screening Center director Donna Bucella. The unified list is used by border officials, embassies issuing visas and state and local law enforcement agents during traffic stops.

The goal for fiscal year 2008 is to expand the list so that only 250,000 are considered not to be associated with terrorists.

By FY 2009, the list should be all inclusive.

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