The Transportation Security Administration’s secret no-fly list includes some very unlikely terror suspects — Bolivian president Evo Morales, 14 of the 19 dead 9/11 hijackers, and every single person named “Robert Johnson.”
Journalists Susan and Joseph Tentro recently obtained a copy of the 44,000-name no-fly list and collaborated with CBS’s 60 Minutes to investigate the names on it. They found thousands of inaccuracies and ambiguities on the list, not to mention some shocking omissions.
“The airlines get a list that’s out of date,” Joe Tentro said. “The list includes dead people and people in prison, but not dangerous terrorists whose names appear on other public lists of terror suspects.”
The no-fly list is supposed to be a centralized roster of suspects compiled by various intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Inter-agency rivalry and mutual suspicion often trump cooperation. Officers will withhold the names of their high-value targets because they don’t want their counterparts in other agencies to have the information.
The original no-fly list was hastily compiled after 9/11. Now, five years later, the list is no closer to being functional. So far the government has spent $144 million to clean up the database, but little progress has been made.
Tens of thousands of innocent people have been confused with terrorists. These passengers have been questioned, searched, and even detained by authorities. Peace activists and other Bush administration critics have also been grounded.
Passengers with common names like “Robert Johnson” are being held at airports because they share the same moniker as someone on the no-fly list. Presumably there’s an actual terror suspect named Robert Johnson out there somewhere, but there’s no way to be sure. The TSA’s not telling.
Even more disturbingly, many known terrorists are deliberately excluded from the list. The Trento/60 Minutes investigation determined that none of the suspects in the London liquid bomb plot was on the list. A.Q. Khan, the mastermind behind Pakistan’s nuclear program, was also conspicuously absent.
For security reasons, TSA officials don’t trust the individual airlines with information about people on the list. In some circumstances, very senior airport officials with government security clearance can get access to more details from the list. But these officials aren’t likely to be standing at the security gate. Most often, the only information that low-level airport security officers have is a name and a date of birth. So anyone with the same name and birthday as a person on the list could be grounded. The result is a bureaucratic nightmare.
The TSA refuses to say who’s on the list or why, and won’t confirm whether the Tentros have a real copy. But several independent sources in the intelligence community have said the Tentros’ list is authentic. The reporters were also able to interview many people on the list and confirm that they had trouble flying.
Experts say it would take years for the TSA to verify every person on the list. New names are being added all the time. The TSA compiles its no-fly list from a variety of intelligence sources in different agencies, each of which has its own secret criteria for passing on names to the TSA.
Once a name finds its way into the database, there’s no way to get it out. Citizens can write to the TSA to protest and declare their innocence, but the best they can hope for is to be placed on a meta-list of people who have asked to be removed.
The net result is a no-fly list that is worse than useless. Many of the worst terrorists are kept off for security reasons, while innocent people are unable to clear their names. Far from keeping us safer, the TSA’s no-fly list has become a bureaucratic, terrorist and civil liberties threat in its own right.
“Is the list effective? Is it accurate? No. The no-fly list is a remarkable study in intelligence manipulation,” Tentro said. Lindsay Beyerstein, AlterNet