Monday, April 09, 2007

"Are you still on the no fly list?"

From "Inside Job: My Life as an Airport Screener" in Conde Nast Traveler. Don't miss Barbara Peterson's fascinating tale. Photo by Marc Asnin.

Friends ask me this periodically. As far as I can tell, the answer is "no." Since our lawsuit concluded, airline clerks no longer respond to my ID with the telltale start and the phrase "there is something wrong with my computer." My boarding passes no longer get marked with a hand-scrawled red "S" (early days) or the current printed "SSSS" that means you are a "selectee" subjected to special search.

Of course the government never told us we off the list -- in fact, they refused throughout the lawsuit to say whether we were on the list. But my anecdotal evidence is that they've decided I'm harmless to air traffic (though possibly not to the T.S.A.)

What's important is that a lot of other harmless people are put through various levels of harassment by the U.S. audience-participation airport security theater. Not too surprisingly, an awful lot of them have Arab or South Asian names. A recent rant about being stopped on KABOBfest, an English language Arab blog, evoked these stories:

I have a little over a hundred boarding passes with the SSSS. I'm hoping to go into the Guiness book of records as the person with the largest such collection.

It's alright. I've never flown once without the SSSS. The last time I flew, I was so sure I was gonna get the SSSS that before the alaska airlines lady printed my ticket, I said, "How much do I have to pay you to remove that SSSS off my ticket?"

You know-after writing this piece, I realized that after returning from Venezuela in January (entering the US through Houston, where the infamous statue of George Bush Sr. is prominently displayed in the middle of the main terminal), where they interrogated me over the Lebanon stamp in my passport, that I haven't had a hassle-free airport experience since. After the customs booth issues, I was taken to a sequestered, hidden facility in the airport's baggage claim area where my luggage underwent additional screening. They were disappointed to find out that all I had in there were anthro papers and clothes! [This one strikes home for me because I too have the Lebanese visa stamp and recently returned to the country through Houston --probably an "Anglo" last name enabled me to walk right in, unhindered.]

Today Josh Marshall is chewing over the story of distinguished law professor Walter Murphy who had a brush with the "selectee list." Airline personnel casually agreed with his suggestion that perhaps he was listed because of peace activities or vocal opposition to the Bush regime. Marshall was a greatly concerned:

Given who Professor Murphy is, I have no doubt this is an accurate account of his particular experience. And it would seem that the people who actually work with the list on a daily basis treat it as a given that the most innocuous and obviously protected forms of criticism of the Bush administration routinely get you on the watch list.

The T.S.A. has always insisted that any innocents on the list are cases of mistaken identity, not political persecution. But the sort of things airline folks told Professor Murphy are exactly what they told us about the list we found ourselves detained, way back in 2002. At that point, we assumed we were victims of a sort of "round up the usual suspects" phenomenon: after 9/11 all the various federal spy outfits threw together everyone they'd ever considered "suspicious." We probably turned up in a lot of categories having lived long lives of activism, so we were thrown on a list.

A recent Washington Post article headlined "Terror Database Has Quadrupled In Four Years: U.S. Watch Lists Are Drawn From Massive Clearinghouse," suggests wide-ranging collection of names is still the rule. The so-called Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) is now up to 435,000 names.

TIDE is a vacuum cleaner for both proven and unproven information, and its managers disclaim responsibility for how other agencies use the data. "What's the alternative?" [official Russ] Travers said. "I work under the assumption that we're never going to have perfect information -- fingerprints, DNA -- on 6 billion people across the planet. . . . If someone actually has a better idea, I'm all ears."...

The 80 TIDE analysts get "thousands of messages a day," Travers said, much of the data "fragmentary," "inconsistent" and "sometimes just flat-out wrong." Often the analysts go back to the intelligence agencies for details. "Sometimes you'll get sort of corroborating information," he said, "but many times you're not going to get much. What we use here, rightly or wrongly, is a reasonable-suspicion standard." ...

Every night at 10, TIDE dumps an unclassified version of that day's harvest -- names, dates of birth, countries of origin and passport information -- into a database belonging to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center. TIDE's most sensitive information is not included. The FBI adds data about U.S. suspects with no international ties for a combined daily total of 1,000 to 1,500 new names.

Sure sounds like they just throw in "all the usual suspects" -- and everyone named Mohammed.

This isn't security. It is a combination of data collection gone cancerous, permanent welfare for government bureaucracies, and theatrical posturing to convince the population that Big Brother is on the job.

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