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No-fly list grounds US Air Marshals

Bureaucrat's memo takes on blacklist madness

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One aspect of the American response to air safety in the year after the September 11 attacks that generated relatively little controversy was welcome expansion of the Federal Air Marshal program - other than some concerns about what kind of weapons could be used safely within a pressurized cabin, really, who could complain about extra beat cops in the sky? Airport rent-a-cops, that's who.

According to the Washington Times, in the years since the widespread dissemination of terrorist watch lists, airline customer service reps have repeatedly turned away frustrated Federal Air Marshals (FAMS) whose names match or bear an uncomfortable resemblance to names on whatever dodgy watch list is at hand. Feeling safer now?

"In some cases, planes have departed without any coverage because the airline employees were adamant they would not fly,” one unnamed air marshal told the paper. “I've seen guys actually being denied boarding.” Another unnamed marshal chimed in that a colleague “has been getting harassed for six years because his exact name is on the no-fly list.”

The database gnomes are notoriously stubborn about revising inaccurate information, prefering to hoard as much information as they can, whether useful or not. With the expansion of private security databases and their related lists, as we have noted before, the problem will inevitably get worse. Although the FAMS are employed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) - ahem, the same outfit that distributes those watch lists to the airlines - the upper bureaucracy of the TSA could apparently only muster up a feeble memo to address the problem.

Really, what more do we expect out of the assistant director of flight operations?

Gregory Alter, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, acknowledged that "in rare instances air marshals, like all travelers, are occasionally misidentified as being on a watch because of name or personal identifier similarities to individuals actually on the lists,” but, he added, the new security directive (SD) “mitigates any misidentification concerns by empowering airlines to quickly clear an air marshal’s status after positively identifying their law enforcement status.”

Oh really? Aggressive enforcement of inaccurate leads is a waste of manpower, and no flurry of bureaucratic memoranda will ever properly vet a security database. That requires the kind of vigilence and determination not typically associated with data entry gnomes. Databases will always expand, and fiasco will follow upon fiasco. Ask Canadian Karen Allen, whose husband, after forty-five years of crossing to the States to go shopping, single-handedly shut down an entire border crossing the other day.

Ten to fifteen agents surrounded the car of the suspicious Canucks. “My daughter-in-law was also handcuffed and I was patted down,” said Karen Allen. “And all of this happened in front of my two very scared grandchildren. Myself and the children were directed to the customs office,” said Mrs. Allen.

“I wonder what would have happened to the children had I not been there. Apparently Chris’s name was similar to a black guy who broke out of jail in some southern state. He was released once they decided he was blonde haired, blue eyed, had freckles, and had particularly pale skin. We were told it would likely happen again when Chris tries to cross the border,” she said. “It is totally unbelievable, and if we hadn’t already paid for our trip to Disney World we wouldn’t be going.”

At least she had Disney World. What kind of make-believe world the TSA is flying in is anybody's guess. ®

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