Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 12, 2006

The life of a ‘no-fly list’ false positive

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christian Beckner on June 12, 2006

The Baltimore Sun had a story this weekend on an issue that continues to wrack the aviation security system: the problem of false-positive watch list hits:

Checking in at the airport for a business trip to Chicago last week, Michael Patrick O’Brien braced himself for a frustrating experience that has become all too routine.

Handing his driver’s license and airline ticket to the agent at the check-in counter, he buried his forehead into his right palm and rolled his eyes in quiet resignation when the agent uttered the phrase that has come to haunt O’Brien: “I need to clear a no-fly.”

A frequent flier who took about a dozen business trips in the past year, O’Brien, 37, of Hampstead has the misfortune of having a name that is identical to, or similar to, someone on the government’s terrorist watch list.

Like thousands of other travelers with names that bear an unlucky resemblance to alleged security threats, O’Brien keeps getting flagged at the airport despite assurances that the problem has been resolved by the Transportation Security Administration, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

“TSA told me I was off the list,” he told the ticket agent at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.

But in a response that sounded like a riddle, the agent said, “You proved you’re not the person on the list, but that doesn’t mean your name comes off.”

He can’t use the online check-in or express check-in at the airport’s computerized kiosks, and he can’t check in with the skycap.

His co-workers at the advertising and public relations firm in Owings Mills where he is an executive vice president cringe at the thought of his booking their group flights because it means they all must check in the old-fashioned way with a ticket agent.

“I’ve become a leper,” he said.

The article goes on to provide more examples, describe how the watch list system works, and outline its Kafkaesque shortcomings. Hopefully DHS will take steps soon to develop a more effective redress system. However, I’ve seen little evidence in the last five months that the Department is moving forward on Sec. Chertoff’s promise to create an effective watch list redress system by the end of 2006:

Our goal is to establish a government-wide traveler screening redress process before the end of this year to enable travelers who have complaints or have legitimate issues to resolve those questions with one-stop shopping.

Hopefully DHS will provide an update soon on whether they intend to achieve this promised deadline.

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June 12, 2006 @ 12:53 pm

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