U.S. Agency Tries to Fix No-Fly List Mistakes

By Ellen Nakashima and Alec Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 20, 2007

Every time Kiernan O'Dwyer arrived at the airport after traveling overseas in recent years, he was flagged as a potential terrorist. But his uniform was a dead giveaway to his true identity: He is a veteran pilot for American Airlines.

U.S. customs agents have stopped him about 80 times since 2003, apparently because his name and birth date nearly match those of an Irish Republican Army leader, one of at least 300,000 names on the U.S. government's watch lists. O'Dwyer falls under an unenviable category of false positives, people who are wrongly detained because some of their personal information matches that of a terrorist or other suspect.

The number of misidentifications is unknown, according to government auditors, but it has caused headaches for a cross-section of travelers, including nuns, infants and members of Congress. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security Department, said it was trying to remedy the problem with a system to prevent unwarranted detentions on international flights.

An agency official said in an interview that the system, launched in February 2006, has eliminated about 17,500 detentions involving people entering the country at airports, seaports and at land borders. It is part of what the government says is an effort to prevent terrorism while not inconveniencing travelers or violating their privacy and civil liberties, though it is not yet applied to domestic flights.

The challenge is complicated by the vast and growing databases of electronically stored personal information that draw on different agencies' records, which must be continually updated to be accurate. Federal agencies and airlines are using computer-driven algorithms to compare travelers' names against watch lists.

Under the new system, which overrides Customs and Border Protection's main database, people continue to be stopped if their name appears on a watch list. But if the follow-up screening clears them, customs agents make note of that so the next time they travel, those people should not be detained.

"It is certainly not in our interests to continually stop people when we have a system in place that can stop that," said John P. Wagner, the agency's director of passenger automation programs. "It's a waste of their time. A waste of our time."

The agency has another terrorist screening tool, the "automated targeting system" for passengers, that can potentially do the same thing, said Brian C. Goebel, former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner. "ATS is designed really to identify the red flags associated with potential risks -- terrorist indicators," he said. But it should also identify passengers who do not merit follow-up screening, Goebel said.

O'Dwyer, 51, of Pittsboro, N.C., is not convinced that the problem has been fixed. "I've been told that everything is fine before," he said. Even after Customs and Border Protection introduced the system to prevent misidentifications, O'Dwyer said he was detained about 30 times.

All his problems began in 2003, after O'Dwyer returned from a trip to Europe. Reaching the customs desk at John F. Kennedy International Airport, he was stunned when officials pulled him aside for further screening. He showed them his passport. He had no criminal record. Ninety minutes later, he was cleared.

But he kept getting detained -- so often that customs agents took to greeting him by his first name.

"They'd look at their screen and know I'd been screened and say, 'Oh boy, you've been through here a bunch,' " he recalled.

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