Friday, January 25, 2008

Are You On the TSA Watch List, Too?


Does the U.S. need to harden its transportation, infrastructure and border security? No reasonable person would answer "no."
So then the question becomes: how to you effectively do this, as opposed to ineffectively wsting a lot of money and staffing on essentially useless procedures?

And that takes us to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Watch List. The TSA is tasked with airport security, which is why all the screeners at airports wear uniforms with "TSA" emblazoned on the back.

While there are a number of disturbing reports about harmless/innocent travelers being harassed by TSA employees floating around the Web, I haven't personally encountered any such behavior. My focus today is not on abuse of travelers (certainly a valid topic) but on the absolute stupidity of the Watch List, of which I am a select member.

Or maybe not so select. Apparently the List contains thousands of names, the vast majority of whom have absolutely no connection to terrorism--and there is not a scintilla of evidence which would justify their inclusion on a list of "potential threats" or "persons of interest" to U.S. intelligence and security agencies.

Want to find out if you're on the TSA watch List? It's easy! Just try to print a boarding pass on your home computer. If you can't--after you've bought the ticket, and selected your seat, and clicked all the appropriate buttons--then guess what: you're on the Watch List!

Or more precisely, your name is on the Watch List. I first discovered my inclusion on the Watch List last summer when I couldn't print a boarding pass at home, or at the airport kiosk. This was confirmed on my flight to Honolulu on 1/16/08, as I was left cooling my heels for 45 minutes while various airline employees tried to clear me to fly.

How idiotic is the Watch List? If you have a common name like Charles Smith, very. It seems the way the List is compiled is this: somebody somewhere (who gets to add you to the List is shadowy/obscure, as is why you've been added) decides that a certain "Charles Smith" (for example) is somebody the TSA better keep an eye on.

So the TSA basically puts every "Charles Smith" in the nation on the Watch List (or every "Charles H. Smith"). Busy airport employees are then tasked with scanning hundreds of "Charles Smiths" to see if you're the bad guy or if you're cleared or if you're apparently not the bad guy.

How hard would it be to finger "Charles Hugh Smith" or "Charles Frederick Smith" born on such and such a day? Once you toss in a middle name and birth date, you eliminate about 99% of all "Charles Smiths" or even "Charles H. Smiths". How could any system which tags hundreds of people who happen to share a common name be considered efficient or useful?

From what I can gather, this Watch List must be cluttered with thousands of names of people who will be needlessly delayed at airports simply because they happen to have common names such as Sanchez or Brown or Chang.

If some security agency has fingered an individual as a potential threat to national security, can't they at least I.D. him correctly? Even if the guy is using aliases, then can't they get his various names and birth dates right? If you can't find out any more about a suspect than his name is "Charles Smith," then do you really have sufficient evidence to start tracking every "Charles Smith"? Or do you in fact just have shoddy law enforcement and intelligence work being passed off as "protecting the nation"?

Exactly how does such an idiotic system add even a speck of "security" to the nation's airports? This one example then suggests a further question: how many other of the security measures being overseen by the vast, sprawling Homeland Security bureaucracy are equally useless in terms of security? How many are needlessly annoying to the citizenry and stupendous wastes of tax money?

Being on the Watch List raises other questions, too. For instance: which "Charles Smith" is considered such a security risk that he must be screened before flying commercial aircraft? And what evidence fingers him as a security threat to the nation?

Has he frequented a church preaching hatred of the U.S.A.? Has C-4 explosive been traced to him? Has he flown to Islamabad and disappeared into the Pakistani hinterlands for long stretches?

In other words, has he exhibited any behavior which links him to known terrorist groups or threatening activities such as acquisition of illegal high explosives? Or is he just some poor schmuck who ran afoul of some bureaucrat somewhere, or some guy who a malevolent person secretly reported as "suspicious" to some acquaintance in a security or law enforcement agency?

I mean, how likely is it that some guy named "Charles Smith" is involved in terrorist activities? I have to admit a great curiosity about which "Charles Smith" has caused hundreds of the rest of us "Charles Smiths" to become suspects of interest, and what precisely has he done to warrant the interest of our nation's vast security agencies. Domestic terror leanings, perhaps? Hatred of the IRS? Who knows?

If standing around in front of the airline counter for 45 minutes while various employees work on clearing you to fly doesn't give you pause, well, try it some time and see how it feels. In the big picture, of course, it's a small delay, and no big deal; if it actually added to the security of the nation or the flight you're about to board, such a delay would be well worth it.

But it seemed instead like a totally useless expenditure of airline employees and passengers time, a system designed to waste time and create needless anxiety in completely innocent passengers.

If you're really a security risk, then you're on the "No Fly" List. Once you get on this List, you will not be issued a boarding pass under any circumstances, except perhaps with clearance from TSA in Washington.

So if the security forces tasked with protecting the citizenry already have a list for known "bad guys" considered serious risks (the No Fly List), then what the heck is the Watch List for except harassment and the churning of millions of records? Somebody's making money processing all these "Watch List" records, to be sure, but their activities don't seem to be adding to the nation's security. And it certainly doesn't take much of this nonsense to make you wonder if Homeland Security has any business maintaining such a flimsy, nonsensical Watch List in the first place.

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