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Moonshadow Boxing

Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page B06

LAST WEEK, an airplane flying to Washington Dulles International Airport was diverted to Bangor, Maine, where the pop singer formerly known as Cat Stevens was taken off the plane to be sent back to London. According to a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, the controversial passenger, now known as Yusuf Islam, could not enter because he has donated money to terrorist organizations and had therefore been placed on a "no-fly list."

This story, while destined to become a staple of late-night talk-show humor, actually raises serious questions about how airline security is being managed. The most important concern the no-fly list, or rather lists, on which Mr. Islam's name appeared. In fact, his name was not on the list that United Airlines originally checked -- which was why he was allowed to board the plane -- but it did appear on another list against which the DHS checks passenger manifests.

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The fact that there are multiple lists, some of which have been updated and some of which have not, should cause everyone to worry. So, too, should their opacity. Many different agencies supply names for these lists. Once a name appears on them, there is no way to find out how it got there and no clear procedure for having it removed. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) apparently shares a name with someone on the no-fly list and has been told several times that he can't fly. So have numerous other non-terrorists. At least one person says he was told that he needed to have his name legally changed to avoid the problem in the future.

This fall, the Transportation Security Administration plans to test a computer program that is meant to run the watch-list program more effectively. But even leaving aside the civil liberties issues posed by that program, the TSA cannot deal with the thorny question of who gets on the lists -- or weigh and balance the even thornier question of whether the dismal international publicity was really worth whatever "security" was gained by the expulsion of a middle-aged former pop singer.

Some of the intelligence reform legislation pending in Congress does call on the DHS to make the procedures surrounding the lists more transparent. But it is doubtful that any system that runs by automatic procedures, as this country's does, will ever be able to deal sensibly with individual cases. Whatever money the former Cat Stevens may or may not have given to terrorist organizations, was it really necessary to stop his plane in Maine? It's unlikely that he is so dangerous that his plane could not land at Dulles, and very likely that the grounding was ordered solely because security bureaucrats were following inflexible rules, without thinking through the consequences. What was missing was common sense.

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