Well, the feds have taken a big step in the right direction.
The Homeland Security Department today issued a 195-page "rule," a federal document setting forth for evaluation proposed procedural changes in the way the federal Terrorist Watch List is (mis) administered at airports.
The long-sought change is called Secure Flight. Secure Flight will "improve aviation security and fix the major customer-service issue of watch list misidentifications, a frustratingly common occurrence for travelers under the existing airline-based systen," the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, says in the announcement.
The entire 195-page proposed rule change is here.
Basically, the new procedure, subject to congressional approval, would turn over to the Transportation Security Administration the direct supervision of the list at the point of contact with air travelers. Right now, the airlines do this -- and do it very badly. The airlines say they have been saddled with an impossible task, incidentally.
Great public confusion surrounds the watch list, most of it the fault of individual airlines. Airlines actually all keep their own, usually haphazard, versions of a list that is then matched against the actual federal watch list when a passenger with a name that matches or approximate an actual identity on the federal list turns up. The process is repeated every single time that passenger shows up at the airport.
Asinine examples of misidentified "terrorists" are legion.
A toddler with a name like Jack Anderson (whom I've written about) gets flagged as a suspect at an airport because an airline has that name, or a variation of that name, on the list compiled by the airline itself, based on the airline's interpretation of the T.S.A.'s summary of the actual federal list, which is (of course) secret.
Yes, I know it is maddeningly complicated.
But the fact is, airlines tend to indiscriminately mass names on their lists, partly because it would be expensive to actually do a better job of reducing so-called "false positives," and partly out of other concerns, among them liability. An airline that waves on passenger who is on the actual terrorist watch list, and who then commits an act of terrorism, is an airline with a huge liability exposure.
The actual watch list is maintained by a federal agency called the Terrorist Screening Center, administered by the F.B.I. On that list -- itself a compilation of about a dozen previous "terrorist" lists formerly maintained by various law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- are detailed identities of suspects. Not just names and aliases, but birthdates, criminal records, descriptions, surveillance reports and much other personal identifying information. That level of identifying information, if checked against airline passenger manifests, would make it much easier to eliminate from the check-in hassles all of the seven-year-olds, nuns, congresspeople, war heroes and other obvious innocents who are routinely told by the airlines (inaccurately) that they are on the "watch list" or, in some of the stupider examples, the "no fly list."
Privacy concerns are the basic reason the airlines have been saddled with this chore, which they hate. The argument had been that an airline providing personal information to the federal government in advance of someone flying was an invasion of privacy. And the airlines themselves can't collect in-advance personal information aside from your name -- unless you volunteer it, for example by enrolling in a frequent flier program.
O.K., so far so good. Homeland Security is moving in the right direction. The misapplication of the watch list and the confusion introduced by the airlines has been a disgrace.
Now we need to look more closely at the actual federal list, which contains hundreds of thousands of records but lists the identities of fewer than 20,000 American citizens, all of whom have been judged as security threats in one way or another by one government intelligence or law enforcement branch or another. The actual list has two sections -- "no fly," meaning you simply ain't getting on the plane and "selectee," the far bigger category, meaning you've been investigated and the authorities want to have a close look at you and your plans, even if you do get on the plane.
Most of the people on the actual list, I have no doubt, are genuine bad actors. But lists have histories in intelligence files.
One specific question out of many: What is the name "Jack Anderson" doing on the actual list, for example? "Jack Anderson" is a kid, now 7, from Minnesota who was flagged at the airport on a family trip to Disney World. But another "Jack Anderson," you'll recall, was a crusading, muckraking columnist who made life miserable for Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and other known American scoundrels. Because of his journalistic activities, Mr. Anderson was on the Nixon enemies list and had an massive secret FBI file.
Now that Homeland Security has moved to fix the problem of misidentification, I would argue that it is time to move to the next level and look into whether we need to more thoroughly scrub the list and separate the actual bad actors from whatever identities of various "political enemies" may have been carelessly allowed to migrate onto it over the years -- like Jack Anderson the columnist, dead for 13 years now.