washingtonpost.com  > Business > Industries > Transportation > Airlines > Security

Faulty 'No-Fly' System Detailed

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2004; Page A01

The federal government's "no-fly" list had 16 names on it on Sept. 11, 2001. Today, it has more than 20,000.

The list, which identifies suspected terrorists seeking to board commercial airplanes, expanded rapidly even though the government knew that travelers were being mistakenly flagged, according to federal records. The records detail how government officials expressed little interest in tracking or resolving cases in which passenger names were confused with the growing number of names on the list.

ACLU staff attorney Jayashri Srikantiah decries no-fly lists. Clients Jan Adams, right, and Rebecca Gordon sued the government after being detained. (Eric Risberg -- AP)

More than 2,000 people have complained to the Transportation Security Administration. Airlines, at one point, were calling the agency at least 30 times a day to say that they had stopped a passenger whose name was similar to one on the list but after further investigation was determined not to be a terror suspect, according to a TSA memo.

More than 300 pages of documents related to the no-fly and related lists were released late Thursday night by the TSA and the FBI in response to a federal court order. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed suit on behalf of Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon, two peace activists who wanted to know why their names had turned up on a no-fly list.

The documents reveal early symptoms of what are now known to be flaws with the watch lists. Travelers who were flagged by the lists said they now foil the system by altering how their names are spelled on their tickets -- adding their middle initials, full middle names or titles, for example.

Government officials do not announce when they stop passengers actually on the lists. The only publicly known case involved Yusuf Islam, once known as the pop singer Cat Stevens, who was prevented last month from entering the country.

The information revealed by the documents is "not very comforting," said Thomas R. Burke, a San Francisco attorney representing the peace activists and the ACLU.

The TSA acknowledges that the system for checking passenger names for suspected terrorists needs fixing, and it plans to overhaul it in a new program called Secure Flight. The Justice Department declined to comment.

The false matches "underscore the need we have to get more information on passengers to adjudicate those that are not a risk," said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

Every time a passenger books a ticket, the airline checks the traveler's name against two enormous government databases, or watch lists, of people the government believes pose a threat. The FAA created two lists in 2001: a no-fly list and a so-called selectee list, both of which airlines compare against reservation records. When the TSA was formed in 2002, it took over maintenance of the lists from the FAA. The no-fly list grew from 16 names supplied by the FBI in 2001 to 1,000 names by the end of 2002, according to the newly released TSA documents. There are now more than 20,000 names on the no-fly list, some which are aliases, according to a homeland security source who is not allowed to release such numbers. There are several thousand names on the selectee list, according to the source.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company