60 Minutes Gets No-Fly List

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CBS News Magazine 60 Minutes recently obtained a copy of the nation's No Fly List, a list of names of suspected terrorists given to airlines so that these people can be kept off your airplane. To protect national security, 60 Minutes will not be releasing the list itself, but it is releasing a few details. They found that the list is "incomplete, inaccurate, outdated, and a source of aggravation for thousand of innocent Americans."

For openers, the list is enormous. It's more than 540 pages long. Although before 9/11, the list of suspected terrorists banned from air travel was just 16 names, today's list has 44,000. Another 75,000 people are on an additional list of people the government thinks should be pulled aside for additional security screening.

The list also isn't terribly accurate. For example, it lists the names of 14 of the 9/11 hijackers, who have been dead for 5 years. (I guess it would be pretty scary to fly with them now.) And those aren't the only dead people on the list.

The list also includes Saddam Hussein, who will no doubt be disappointed that when his trial is over, he won't be able to go to Disneyland. It contains Zacarias Moussaoui, currently serving a life sentence in prison. (That'll come in handy if he ever escapes and decides to use his real name to leave the country.)

It contains dangerous public figures, like Nabih Berri, the head of the Lebanese parliament, who recently met with Condoleezza Rice, and the president of Bolivia. (Even Hugo Chavez was apparently able to catch a flight to NY for his U.N. speech, but presumably the Bolivian president may have been forced to drive up from Mexico to attend.)

As thousands of unlucky travellers have found, there are also a few people on the list with fairly common names, like Gary Smith, John Williams, or Robert Johnson. People who share these names are routinely pulled aside for intensive questioning, special searches, even the occasional strip search. And they have no recourse; there's no way for the government to (for example) issue them a card saying that they are not THAT Robert Johnson. To make things worse, the airlines only get names and, sometimes, birth dates. The dangerous Robert Johnson is a 62-year-old black man, but since that information isn't on the list, Robert Johnsons of any ethnic group or age still get the extra-thorough couple of hours of grilling, each and every time they fly--even the Robert Johnson who is a member of the U.S. military. And the government's attitude can be summed up as, basically, "sucks to be them, huh?"

Although a more advanced system that would include more details about the people on the list, helping to prevent confusion of this kind, has been in the works for years, it hasn't been finished yet. In fact, almost no progress whatsoever has been made towards getting it up and running.

Even worse, some of the some of most dangerous terrorists never even end up on the No-Fly List, because the intelligence agencies that supply the names are afraid that the lists might end up in foreign hands and tip the terrorists off. Some other fairly obvious names aren't on the list, such as the people now under arrest for the British "liquid explosives" plot. They had been under surveillance for over a year, but they still weren't on the No-Fly List. That makes me feel safer.

This past week Congress passed, and the president signed, legislation ordering the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a plan to make it easier for people who have the same name as someone on the No Fly List to get on a plane. Of course, this action will be coming from the same people who put together the No Fly List with all its imperfections in the first place, so we'll see what we actually get. I'm sure the Robert Johnsons of the world can't wait.

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