Terrorist Watch Lists – Reliability 15%
After 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) dramatically increased the number of names added to terror watch lists, or “no-fly” lists. Names were added to the list based on intelligence received from multiple agencies and processed by the TSA. Most people believe there are, perhaps, a few hundred suspected true terrorists that are prohibited from flying. In fact, today, there are roughly 31,000 names – the population of a mid-sized American town – on the various watch lists maintained by TSA and shared with U.S. and international airlines. And they are NOT all terrorists!
Clearly, there are people who are reasonably suspected of terrorist ties based on reliable intelligence and who should be prohibited from boarding a commercial airliner; and, in principle, the concept of “no-fly lists” is a good one. But, in practice, and by any standard, the TSA’s management and oversight of its terror watch list program has been abysmal, missing obvious terrorists, targeting innocent Americans both deliberately and due to incompetence, and making passengers bristle at the thought of being required to provide private information to an agency with a poor record of controlling or using it in good faith, and that gives passengers little recourse if their personal information results in an erroneous determination they are a security threat.
- The TSA failed to put Osama Bin Laden on its “no-fly list” but it did add Senator Edward Kennedy to it.
- In 2004, TSA diverted a commercial airliner to forcibly remove the singer, Cat Stevens, as a potential terrorist. Cat Stevens wrote the song, “Peace Train.”
- Not long after, TSA removed a known terrorist from an airline flight about to depart the U.S. Unfortunately, the individual was in the custody of federal agents and being deported from the United States. TSA still refused to allow him to leave.
Such incompetence would be comical if it did not have such serious ramifications for innocent citizens. There are cases where professional airline pilots find themselves on terror watch lists for reasons they can’t fathom; and are, thus unable to earn a living because they are no longer permitted to fly commercial airliners. Pilots report their telephone calls to the TSA are, in many cases, ignored. Two pilots on terror watch lists are deputized federal officers in the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program; so they are authorized to protect their cockpits with firearms when on duty, but not permitted to fly as passengers when off duty. It is surreal.
The TSA has also announced it does not limit names placed on its “no-fly lists” to suspected terrorists. The agency also adds the names of passengers judged unruly in flight or in preparation for flight. A passenger who, in a moment of anger, snaps at a flight attendant, jokes about a bomb, or ignores the Fasten Seat Belt sign, could, ultimately, find him or herself prohibited from flying on any commercial airliner forever -- with no charges filed, no guilty finding and little recourse.
Most chilling, the TSA classifies as, Sensitive to National Security, the criteria it uses to place passengers’ names on its lists in general, or the specific reasons a given passenger was put on a “no-fly” list. It is thus, impossible for the passenger to refute or correct the TSA’s arbitrary decision.
- In spring of 2005, a female passenger suggested to TSA screeners at an airport checkpoint that they wouldn’t be able to find any contraband in her bag even if she were carrying any. Her assertion is confirmed by numerous independent reports showing TSA screeners miss as much as 95% of contraband when it is deliberately hidden. In response, the TSA prohibited her from flying, as a security threat, even though she had not made any threat – but, they failed to remove her bag from the flight. When the flight arrived at the flight’s destination, her bag was removed, taken to a remote area and deliberately blown apart by a demolitions team, despite the fact, the woman had never made a threat and the bag, having arrived, was obviously no longer a threat itself, if it ever had been. The woman was never charged with any violation. Whether the TSA’s action was due to vengeance against a passenger critical of the agency, or unbelievable incompetence, it is clear its “no-fly” decisions are not constrained by reason or logic.
This same agency is now accessing millions of passengers’ private information to use to decide if they should be permitted to fly or not, as part of its new “Secure Flight Program.” A Government Accountability Office report published only four months before the program would go into effect found that 9 out of the 10 measures mandated by Congress to protect innocent passengers’ information, privacy and freedom to fly had not been implemented by the TSA.
Even if the terror watch list program is someday operated by a responsible agency, its limitations are obvious: a passenger has to have already done something to suggest he is a terrorist. New terrorist recruits will not be on a watch list and Al Qaeda will verify their backgrounds before using them in a coordinated attack. Even of some terrorists from a future team are denied boarding, others will be permitted onboard an airliner to carry out the attack.
The “No-Fly List” program could, potentially, be a valuable tool in the fight to prevent new 9/11 attacks if it is properly operated and its limitations understood. But dramatic improvements in philosophy, attitude, implementation, oversight and management must take place before its value will be realized. The program will also need to be operated by a more competent, responsible, and accountable agency or it will fail amidst the complaints of thousands of unfairly targeted Americans who will simply not tolerate being labeled “terrorists.”
The reliability of “no-fly” lists in preventing a terrorist attack is 15%. The adverse consequences for innocent passengers is significant.