Thursday, May 07, 2009

Terror Watch List: Free Jack Anderson! All of Them!

[Above: J. Edgar Hoover, Subversives-Hunter]

[Above: Jack Anderson, Columnist and 'Jackal']

[Above: Jack Anderson, terror suspect, and his Mom, Christine. Photo courtesy of Christine Anderson.]

I've done my best to try to straighten out the FBI terrorist watch list story over the last year. Every time I think it's explained, off we go again into the rat's nest.

Now comes news that the Inspector General's Office of the Justice Department has found fault with the sloppy way the terrorist watch lists are maintained by the F.B.I. Terrorist Screening Center. Here's a link to the news story and, for those of you truly, truly motivated, a link to the full report, in a long .pdf file on the Inspector General Web site.

The news accounts focus mostly on the finding in the report that lapses in the watch list maintenance can allow suspected terrorists to slip into the U.S. because they have not been "nominated" and confirmed to be listed.

But there is also some interesting reading on the various names that appear on the lists that seem to have nothing to do with any international terrorist threat. I give you, again, the case of Jack Anderson -- or I should say, the multiple Jack Andersons who routinely get stopped at airport check-in and delayed for questioning because, it seems, some "version" of their identity appears on the official, secret lists, which are maintained by the F.B.I. in two categories -- Do Not Fly and Selectee.

The truly bad list "Do Not Fly," contains the names and detailed information on fewer than 2,000 actual terrorist suspects. My guess is that none of them are named Jack Anderson, or a close variant of same.

The jam-up for many people with common names (David Nelson is another one) comes with the "Selectee" list, which contains the names and detailed information on people who are suspected of having some terrorist connections, but on whom the evidence is too slight to ban from flying, but sufficient enough, under the guidelines, to have them double-checked at airports. Several thousand people are on this list, along with details about them. This list has been compiled over recent years from about a dozen various, historical government and law-enforcement lists of various people under investigation, supposedly for terrorist connections. Or so those various agencies have claimed.

Again, this makes some sense -- assuming the master lists are well-maintained, which, as the Justice Department report points out, they are not.

The mess gets even more complicated because, for reasonable security reasons, the actual detailed lists maintained by the FBI are not disseminated to the airlines, whose unwanted responsibility it is to do the flagging at the gate. Instead, the airlines get bare-bones lists of names and variants of names, and (because of privacy concerns long argued by groups like the ACLU) no other personal information to help them match a passenger against a suspect. The airlines hate this responsibility, which leads to many "false positives" among their passengers, and I don't blame them.

The Homeland Security Department is making a major fix to this system with a program, now being rolled out, called Secure Flight. Once it is fully in place by next year, airline passengers will have to provide enough personal information in advance of flying to allow the TSA (and not the airlines) to compare those names and identities with much more precision against the names and other information on the actual secret watch-lists.

Before he departed as the director of the TSA late last year, Kip Hawley explained the dilemma the airlines face, though he was also critical of what he regarded as the airlines' lackadaisical approach to the problem of false positives, meaning the airlines routinely flagging people who really are not on the selectee list.

"The problem is all those people who think they’re on a watch list in fact are flying on airlines that don’t do a very good job of sorting out who is actually on the real watch-lists and whose name might be similar to someone on the No Fly or Selectee watch lists," Hawley said.

"Let’s suppose a real person named Mohammed Mohammed Mohammed is on the [real] Selectee list. Well, if your name is Mohammed Mohammed Smith or Joe Mohammed Mohammed Mohammed, or Mohammed Bob Mohammed -- depending on how the airline filters its list -- you may end up with hundreds of other people with names like that getting flagged every time they fly, by an airline saying that you can’t get your boarding pass, you’re on the list, please come over to the ticket counter and prove to us who you are. A lot of those people think the government has them on a watch list because they always have to go over to the ticket counter and answer questions before they can fly. So all those people are going away mad, thinking, what’s the TSA got against me?"

The airlines have argued that they were handed an impossible and expensive logistical problem that forces them to error, when they do, on the side of great caution.

Anyway, Secure Flight will go a long way toward fixing that problem, though at some cost to personal privacy (the government will now know more in advance about every air traveler's plans). Being able to match you, the innocent traveler, against the actual person on the terrorist list who shares nothing with you except some possible vague variant of name or alias, will solve a problem for lots of fliers with common names who routinely get needlessly flagged, despite their repeated attempts to get their names off the list.

Take Jack Anderson, age 7 when he got the third-degree last year when flying with his mother, Christine, his two brothers and their grandmother on a trip to Disney World. The family thought they would miss their flight till airline security finally cleared Jack about an hour after he was detained.

Christine Anderson did a good job making her case publicly that young Jack, who was first flagged at age 2, is obviously not a terrorist, or someone with known terrorist connections. Under Secure Flight, young Jack will immediately come up as a child whose particulars do not match those of the actual Jack Anderson on the watch list.


But wait a minute: Why is there a "Jack Anderson" on the watch-list in the first place?

I can only guess here, but I'd say the Selectee list probably contains the name and particulars of Jack Anderson, the muckraking columnist who was on the Nixon White House enemies' list and who was relentlessly investigated by the FBI under the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover, who in fact referred to Anderson as a "jackal" for unearthing various unpleasantries and scandals involving the agency during the unfortunate (and seemingly interminable) Hoover era.

In its recent audit of the Terrorist Watch Lists, the Justice Department Inspector General's office reported that over one third of the names and identities on the lists "were associated with FBI cases that did not contain current international terrorism or domestic terrorist cases ..." The report continued, "Rather, many of these watch-listed records were associated with outdated terrorism-case classifications or case-classifications unrelated to terrorism, and had been nominated [to the list] by various FBI field offices and headquarters units."

Hmmm, could it be that Hoover's and Nixon's files on Jack Anderson, respected journalist and patriotic American, still linger in the data-banks that make up the Terrorist Watch Lists rat's nest?

One of Jack Anderson's sons, Kevin, a Salt Lake City lawyer, certainly thinks so. When I first wrote about the seven-year-old Jack Anderson last summer, Kevin Anderson e-mailed me with this question about the list:

"How come it includes my Dad, a respected journalist, and anyone with the same name, including some little kid? And with all their resources, how come the FBI doesn’t know that they’re looking for a dead man?"

Jack Anderson the columnist died in 2005.


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