Thursday, February 02, 2012

Media Still Can't Get the 'No Fly List' Straight

Bill Moyers once said this: "Reporters are people who are paid to explain things they don't understand."

That's invincibly true with reporting on not-so-hard-to-understand things like the government's no-fly and selectee lists that the airlines and the TSA use at airport checkpoints.

Here's a story that starts out reasonably well-informed on the no-fly part of the list, saying that the number of names on it has doubled in a year -- to 20,000. That sounds about right to me.

The no fly list, compiled by the FBI with input from various intelligence and law-enforcement sources, has the names and detailed identities of specific people around the world who are simply not cleared to fly. That is, they do not get on an airplane if they are identified as being on that list. Period.

So far, from what I know, not a single person on that list has been identified as attempting to board a plane.

The other part of the watch list is where reporters always get confused. It contains several hundred thousand names, and partial identities, including aliases and partial names, that automatically trigger a small alarm when a reservation is made by someone who has a name that's on that list, or in most cases a name or identity characteristics that are similar to that of someone who has been placed on that list.

That person -- who usually is on the list for no reason other than sharing a similarity in ID with a person who in fact did get put on the list -- gets to fly, usually after a brief inconvenience at the checkpoint.

This so-called selectee list is cumbersome and often ridiculous -- but it is not a "no fly" list.

A few years ago, I wrote about a 7-year-old boy, Jack Anderson, who was routinely flagged every time his mother tried to take him on an airplane to places like Disney World -- merely because someone named Jack Anderson was on the selectee list. Why "Jack Anderson?" I can only guess, but it seems to me that the late Jack Anderson, muckraking Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and prominent occupant of the old Nixon White House Enemies List, absurdly was placed on the selectee list by some nitwit in federal law enforcement, evidently unaware that columnist Jack Anderson was dead.

After much derision and complaint, the TSA and FBI have successfully addressed most of the more egregious absurdities of the selectee list (I haven't heard from Jack Anderson's mom in a while) with a program that narrows down the "false positives" by requiring that everyone who books an airline reservation provide a few extra points of personal information, namely age and gender. Hence a 7-year-old Jack Anderson is no longer presumed to be the same person as the aged Jack Anderson who died in 2005.

OK -- I've explained this ad infinitum. So why do reporters consistently get the distinctions wrong, encouraging multitudes of people to believe incorrectly that they are on a "no fly" list?

Example from the Huffington Post story (based on AP reporting) linked to above: "The no-fly list has swelled to 20,000 people before, such as in 2004. At the time, people like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy were getting stopped before flying – causing constant angst and aggravation for innocent travelers. But much has changed since then. ..."

Ted Kennedy, like tens of thousands of others, was "stopped" because he shared some points of identity with a person who had been placed on the "selectee" list.

Arguably, Kennedy should have been on a "no drive" list. But he -- and tens of thousands of others who routinely got flagged, inconvenienced and then waved on -- was not on a "no fly list."


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