THE MIDDLE SEAT 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.
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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 www.dhs.gov/trip3. [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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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