Wednesday, November 07, 2007

There's Something About Mary

I have a friend with a fear of flying.

It's not the takeoffs or landings, the claustrophobic seating, the
turbulence, the lousy movies and even worse food.

The problem is much more basic.

Her name is Mary Smith. Honest. And when she flies, that name sets off
more red flags with the Transportation Security Administration folks than if
she ran through the airport yelling, "Allah Akbar."

I guess that should come as no surprise. According to a new report, the
government's terrorist watch list has swelled to jaw dropping 750,000 names,
growing by more than 200,000 names a year since 2004.

At this rate, it will easier to compile a list of people who are allowed
to fly.

While there are undoubtedly some genuine bad guys on that list, many
common American names have been included under the theory that the next
terrorist attack might be engineered by someone calling himself Joe Jones. Or
Mary Smith.

If 750,000 names seems unwieldly, counterproductive and sometimes
downright silly, you're right. Consider:

U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy was denied permission to board several years ago
because his name popped up on a list.

So was a 4-year-old boy named Edward Allen.

So was Kernan O'Dwyer, who happened to be a pilot for American Airlines.

So was Daniel Brown, a Marine returning from Iraq, who was prevented from
boarding a flight home because his name matched one on the No Fly List. The
rest of his company refused to leave the airport until Brown was allowed to

Is this any way to run a war on terrorism?

About 53,000 people on the list were questioned since 2004, according to a
story in USA Today, which said the Homeland Security Department doesn't keep
records on how many were denied entry or allowed into the country after
questioning. Most were apparently released and allowed to enter, the story
said, quoting a Government Accountabuility Office report.

We can all agree that eternal vigilence, as they say, is the price of

But misguided vigilance is dangerous and ineffective.

The terror watch list clearly needs to be made more accurate. With three
quarter of a million names, the quality of the information comes into

In the meantime, innocent people are being snared. As it stands now,
getting off the list is difficult. The government won't confirm if a person
is on a list or not, and the TSC doesn't take responsibility for names placed
on the list by a law enforcement or intelligence agency.

There is a Homeland Security website where you can fill out a form and
submit notarized copies of birth certificates and other personal documents.

If you are successful, you get a letter from the Transportation Security
Administration saying you have been cleared. But your name remains on the
list. On its Web site, the agency says, "While T.S.A. cannot ensure that
these clearance procedures will relieve all delays, the procedures should
facilitate a more efficient check-in process."

And, of course, the 800 poound gorilla in this room is the paranoia
caused by the fact that the government is keeping secret files of American

Typical is the story told by Walter F. Murphy, professor of jurisprudence
at Princeton and a retired Marine colonel.

He reported that the following exchange took place at Newark where he was
denied a boarding pass "because I [Professor Murphy] was on the Terrorist
Watch list."

The airline employee asked, "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a
lot of people from flying because of that."

"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in
September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web,
highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."

To which the airline employee responded, "That'll do it."

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