Escaping the Watch List
The feds say they're trying to make it easier for travelers
David Taylor, a 58-year-old grandfather of five from the Boston area, never could have imagined such a nightmare. About three years ago, airport officials told him he appeared to be on a special terrorism watch list used by the Transportation Security Administration to flag some passengers for extra security screening. After that, he began to spend "what felt like a lot of my life" trying to fix the trouble, calling everyone from Ed Markey, his representative; to Washington megacontractors; to the Library of Congress. He even sent the TSA the original version of his birth certificate. For security reasons, TSA doesn't tell people who appeal their case whether their identity is ultimately cleared. "All I know is I haven't had problems for the last year or so," Taylor says now.
Taylor has no idea why-or even if-he was ever on the watch list or whether there's some other David Taylor out there who's a threat. But there may be fewer of those Kafka-esque stories if the Department of Homeland Security has its way. DHS is engaged in an aggressive effort to clean out extraneous names from the watch lists. It's also launching a website to help people appeal identity mix-ups. But Congress has its own ideas about fixing the screening system, and critics say the process has an awfully long way to go.
The problem, of course, is relatively new. Before 9/11, just 16 names were on the no-fly list, meaning people with those names couldn't board U.S. airplanes. Today, the TSA maintains a presumably larger no-fly list, as well as a selectee list, which designates people who get special security screening. The numbers of names on the lists are classified, although CBS News's 60 Minutes found 119,000 names on the two lists last March. But those are just a subset of the master list of potential terrorists that President George W. Bush asked intelligence agencies to cobble together in 2003. That list has been held in National Counterterrorism Center and has been reported to total some 325,000 names. Parts of it are passed along to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which uses some of the names to make up the TSA's lists.
"Scrub." The TSA lists are supposed to include only people deemed threats to aviation, but problems are legendary. Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and Catherine Stevens, wife of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, are among those who have been snagged. Kip Hawley, the head of the TSA, revealed last month that his agency has been giving its lists "a thorough scrub." About six months ago, his agency for the first time sent full-time TSA investigators to the FBI to check each name. Hawley says when the process is finished in a couple of months, "we'll have cut the [no-fly] list in half."
The redress process has also improved. At one point, people petitioning to get off the list had to submit notarized copies of documents like birth certificates to the TSA; today, a copy of a passport and some forms on a website will do. A once months-long process now takes on average less than 10 days. But more than 20,000 people sent in personal information to try to clear their identities in 2006 alone. People who have proved they have a similar name to someone on the watch list-but are not the actual target-are put on a special "cleared" list that goes to airports.