Tuesday, April 06, 2010

'No Fly' List Expanding

The 'no fly' portion of the terrorist watch list, which had about 2,000 people on it two years ago, now has about three times that number.

Watch the news media stumble over this information, since in general media accounts have inaccurately reported on the terrorist watch list for many years.

The 'no fly' list, which many reporters commonly confuse with the much-bigger 'selectee' list, contains names of people posing known terrorist threats who are not allowed to board an airplane.

So far, from what I have been told by people familiar with the way the watch lists operate, no one on the no fly list has tried to fly. So it isn't entirely clear just how it works if someone on that list shows up at an airport. They are not necessarily arrested, but the police are alerted. [Over the years there have been a few "false positive" hits on the no-fly list, when people have been detained at airports because they have been mistakenly flagged as being on the list. But these have been cases of either mistaken identity or outright checkpoint incompetence).

The news media always get this confused. The no fly list is one thing. The selectee list is quite another. That portion of the terrorist watch list has 20,000 to 50,000 actual identities on it, but that list is an unholy mess. It's an amalgam of numerous intelligence and law enforcement data banks, some so obsolete and half-baked that names like Jack Anderson are on it. Jack Anderson, the famous muckraking columnist, died five years ago. His name evidently migrated onto a list of people to be watched because Anderson was deeply hated by Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. Until recently, anyone named Jack Anderson (including an eight-year-old boy) has been stopped for additional security inspections at airport checkpoints.

If you share a name with one of the names, aliases, identities or half-baked data entries with anyone on the selectee list, you're likely to have been delayed at checkpoints for extra questioning. This year, the TSA is supposed to be perfecting a procedure, called Secure Flight, for greatly reducing the so-called false positives on that list, which has about 500,000 various data entries altogether. That's the reason airlines now ask for your birthdate and gender when you book, to help narrow the false hits against that list.

The selectee list is an acknowledged mess of tangled data. But from what I have been told, the "no fly" list is deadly serious. Anyone on it is bad business, and it's probably good news that it's been expanded.


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