Watchlists waste time  
Hi, Everyone,
Once my brother David Nelson started getting stopped every time he flew, I knew airport security wasn't working well. Even keeping a list of names up to date is too much for our nation's  Department of Homeland Security.  This Wall Street article suggests flying under your middle name, or asking your single most favorite airline to clear you under your frequent flier number.  The sad story here is that every million dollars spent to make our security worse just drags a great country down.  

When Your Name Is Mud at the Airport
System to Help Innocent Fliers Get Off Terrorist Watch Lists
Hasn't Lived Up to Promise
January 29, 2008; Page D1
A government program set up to remove innocent people from terrorism no-fly and watch lists has been ineffective and riddled with problems, travelers and congressional leaders say.

The Department of Homeland Security's Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or TRIP, was started almost a year ago to clear people routinely subjected to extra airport-security screening and even detention simply because their names were confused with those on the government's voluminous terrorism watch lists. The lists now contain more than 700,000 records and include many names as common as John Thompson and James Wilson.

But travelers say TRIP has done little to ease their security hassles. They complain that government officials have been unresponsive and offer little information even when they do answer inquiries. And travelers who have been told they have been placed on a "cleared" list find themselves still subjected to added security procedures, unable to pre-print boarding passes for airline flights or use kiosks at airports, for example. Then, after waiting in line to check in, they find themselves trapped in a Catch-22 of long waits while supervisors probe their identity and status on the "cleared" list -- just to avoid the delay of being selected for additional screening at checkpoints.
"The 'redress' program is completely useless. I still have the same problems," says James Wilson, a department chairman at a community college in Oregon who was "cleared" through TRIP this past summer but has been stopped by airline and airport officials on every flight since.
TRIP was launched in February 2007 after years of complaints from multitudes of travelers who inexplicably turned up on terrorism watch lists and were regularly subjected to Transportation Security Administration secondary screening at airports and sometimes pulled aside for questioning. Famously, even Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) was tagged for extra screening, along with young children, military veterans with security clearances and many others. Even more frustrating for many, removing their names from terrorism lists seemed impossible.

The government hailed TRIP as a convenient remedy, but the program soon ran into trouble. A graduate student discovered that the TRIP Web site that collects personal information wasn't secure and exposed applicants to possible identity theft. An investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that Homeland Security awarded the TRIP Web site contract without competition, and the TSA official in charge of it was a former employee of the company that got the contract. In addition, the House Committee on Homeland Security says TRIP was inoperative for two months last year.

With complaints from constituents mounting and concerns rising that so many false positives weakened efforts to find real threats, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D., N.Y.) introduced a bill in November to pressure Homeland Security to be more responsive and speed up processing at TRIP. Another problem her bill seeks to fix: Making sure agencies share "cleared" lists so that someone OK'd by TSA doesn't have the same security problems crossing borders, purchasing firearms or in other dealings with federal agencies.

"So many people are being ensnared by this antiquated process," Rep. Clarke says. "We're not becoming any safer as a result of this level of scrutiny, but we're losing civil liberties."

TSA says that as of this past Wednesday, it has received 23,867 requests for redress under TRIP, and 54% have been adjudicated. The average processing time is now 40 days, a TSA spokeswoman says. (An improvement from the 44 days it took in November.) Security issues involving the Web site were cleared up soon after they became known, TSA says.

Jason Steele, a technology contractor in Colorado, discovered his name was on the watch list about four years ago and fought to get a letter from TSA clearing his name. The letter didn't stop him from getting tagged as a "selectee" when he flew, so he applied again through TRIP and received notice that he had already been cleared. "I don't think that clearance does a darn thing for you," he says.

He has gotten some relief from UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, which has identified Mr. Steele as cleared through his frequent-flier number, allowing him to check in online, use United's kiosks and avoid extra screening. On other airlines, Mr. Steele has learned that if he flies under his middle name, he doesn't get stopped.

"The whole process is just cosmetic," he says.

While watch lists seem often to snare people with common names, perhaps because they share the same name as a bomber or an alias once used by a terrorist, Bethan Lilja would seem immune. She can't figure why she is on the list.

"I've never been arrested. Never been part of a radical group. I did send a letter to the government once opposing trapping of coyotes in the West when I was in college," she says.
She applied for redress under the TRIP program in November, but hasn't heard anything yet from Homeland Security -- not even an acknowledgment of her application.

Officials familiar with security procedures say much of the problem with misidentifying people comes from imperfect data in airline reservation systems trying to match up with imperfect data on government watch lists.

Government lists cast a very wide net by including many varieties of spellings and aliases for the same person. Yet many airlines don't include middle names or even gender in reservations, increasing the likelihood of false matches. That also makes the "cleared" list ineffectual if government lists a full legal name and airlines don't. And differences in how airlines handle reservations can mean travelers get stopped for extra screening on some carriers and not others.

"We need a uniform naming system," says Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security who is now a government consultant. He is working on TRIP for the National Business Travel Association, which has been pressing for overhaul and supports Rep. Clarke's proposed legislation.

The TSA is developing a more sophisticated screening regime called "Secure Flight" that should help reduce the number of people mistakenly tagged for added scrutiny, officials say, because it will include more personal data about travelers, like birth dates. But "Secure Flight" has been delayed for years with concerns about privacy and protection of data. While it is being developed, not much investment has been made in the current system either by government or airlines.

"Both sides know there's a whole new way this is going to happen that's coming soon," said Mr. Verdery.

A TSA spokeswoman says Secure Flight should improve the system and remove the troubles travelers are having with the cleared list and TRIP. Under Secure Flight, watch-list matching will be done by the government, not airlines, she says, and travelers who have been cleared won't have to wait in other lines for verification and will have access to self-service kiosks and boarding passes. "This advancement will provide a more uniform application, improve the passenger experience and better identify individuals that may pose a known or suspected threat to aviation," she says.

The change won't come soon enough for John Thompson, a Castle Rock, Colo., sales vice president who travels every week and has been flagged on watch lists for the past five years. He has tried several times for redress from TSA, sending voluminous personal information by certified mail, but has never received even an acknowledgment of his application. (TSA says applicants under the current TRIP system should get a case number to track progress.)

Mr. Thompson, who believes he shares the same name as a jailed Irish bomber, says he gets selected for secondary screening on about three-quarters of his trips. United has helped his cause by allowing him to use online check-in and kiosks. But the secondary screening has continued.

"You just plan accordingly," he shrugs. "It is ridiculous for them to not be able to come up with a way to figure this out."

If you end up on government watch lists, here are some steps to improve your travels:
• Try TSA's redress program at [jerry: but the article itself shows nothing will happen]
• Once cleared by TSA, work with airlines to incorporate that into your frequent-flier profile.
• If cleared under your full legal name, start using it for airline reservations.
If problems persist, try using your middle name for airline tickets. (Try this first if you want to avoid the hassles of TSA's redress program.)

Write to Scott McCartney at
URL for original  article:

back to top
              Website homepage