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16,000 namesakes cry foul over US terror watch list

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In the last eight months, more than 16,000 US travelers have complained that the FBI's "terrorist watch" list has mistakenly delayed their travel plans.

In February, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rolled out a new website for such complaints. Of the 16,000 who've cried foul, TSA says, only three per cent are actually on the list and want off. The other 97 per cent merely share a name with someone on the list.

The site is called TRIP, short for Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. It lets you request a spot on another list that proves you're not on the first one.

But getting yourself onto this "cleared" list isn't easy. As reported by USA Today, TSA is having trouble meeting its goal of processing all requests within thirty days. At this point, the average rate is 44 days.

According to Christopher White, a TSA spokesman, only 7,400 of the 16,000 requests have been processed since February. Of the rest, 1900 are "pending action," and 6600 are still being discussed. "We're still waiting for complete information so we can look into their claims," White told us.

A new government report insists that the terrorist list - used to screen travelers at airports, sea ports, and border crossings - has now expanded to 755,000 names. The Terrorist Screening Center, an FBI adjunct that maintains the list, won't say how long it is, but White says this number is much too high.

"I know it doesn't include 750,000 names," he said. "I think it's less than half that."

Come back Peter, come back Paul

The list is actually two lists. The first names people who are not allowed to fly - at all. "These people pose such a threat to aviation that they are not allowed to get on an airplane," White said. "That applies to any US carrier around the world. Or any carrier flying to a US destination." The second lists people who must be selected for additional screening before each flight.

USA Today tells the story of a Disney World-loving 6-year-old who shares a name with someone on the "additional screening" list. Little John Anderson hasn't made it onto the cleared list because his mum finds the TRIP web site confusing.

Because of his name, the six-year-old is not allowed to print out his boarding pass online before arriving at the airport, but according to White, he shouldn't be subjected to additional screening. "Airlines have the power to automatically de-select anyone under 12."

It is not a power that all airlines exercise. In August, a seven year-old British boy on holiday in Florida, Javaid Iqbal, was stopped repeatedly at US airports on suspicion of being a terrorist, as the Daily Mail reported at the time:

Javaid shares his name with a Pakistani man deported from the US, prompting staff at three airports to question his family about his identity.

The family even missed their flight home from the U.S. after officials cancelled their tickets in the confusion. And Javaid's passport now contains a sticker saying he has undergone highlevel security checks.

And in 2005, a four year-old boy and his mother, both American, were stopped from boarding a Continental Airlines plane out of Houston, Texas because he shared a name - Edward Allen - with someone on the no-fly list.

Continental later told the Allen family that it was simply following the drill, which meant working its way through a checklist that required three proofs of identity for Edward to fly. As a four year-old Edward had only his birth certificate. And that was at home. ®

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