The "No Fly" List
They call me David Nelson and my name has been besmirched
When I fly across my country, I will always be stripsearched
Somewhere a David Nelson is allegedly quite mean
And the TSA ain't able to declare my person clean
-- The Ballad of Davids Nelson
The Ballad of Davids Nelson is a short song about a man who is stopped by airport security for having the same name as a suspected terrorist. The lyrics are meant to be humorous, but they aren't so funny to someone whose name really is David Nelson.
The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) maintains a list of 300 names of people the United States considers a threat to air safety. Persons with these names are stopped at airports and questioned until their identity can be verified. One of the names on the list is David Nelson.
As a result, David Nelson, a Columbia University graduate student from Kansas, is routinely stopped at the airport. Each time he goes to check in, "the person behind the counter will look at you quizzically then rush around and make mysterious phone calls." The person behind the counter is doing a background check in order to clear him to travel. While those calls are made, a police officer stands by David's side.
David Nelson, first base coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, and David Nelson, a business consultant from Florida also are stopped on a regular basis. "It's pretty much a hassle every time you fly," says the Florida Nelson.
These individuals are just examples. Others have been delayed or missed flights, in addition to suffering what they describe as the indignities of the procedure and the stares of their fellow passengers.
Flaws in the System
The TSA compiles the names for the "No Fly" list from intelligence and law enforcement reports and sends the list to airlines. It is the airlines' job to make sure nobody on the list gets onboard.
What sounds like a simple plan is proving very difficult to execute. Many entries on the list lack details that could make it easy to know if a traveler is really the person named. And the TSA gives airlines little guidance on just when a passenger's name is close enough to one on the list to warrant flagging the person for a law enforcement check.
The TSA admits there are a lot of problems with its system. One of the largest being that the technology used to run the actual name checks is old and outdated. The result of the flawed system is a large number of innocent passengers being subjected again and again to law enforcement reviews.
The TSA is working to develop and implement the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II), new
technology which would more precisely track terrorist suspects. The new screening program
would use a computer data-sifting process to match passenger name, address, birth date and ticket-purchasing information against financial
and commercial databases and government watch lists. The goal is simple — to verify a traveler's identity and look for any hint of security risk.
This new approach to security is called data mining and administration officials hope it will be fully in place by the TSA next year.
However, the system is already being highly criticized by civil liberties groups who fear the information will be placed in a centralized database
containing every imaginable bit of information on all citizens. The TSA insists their own officers or necessary law enforcement would be the only ones with access to the information, and that the information will be destroyed after the passenger has traveled.
Before CAPPS II can move forward it faces a great deal of scrutiny. An amendment to the Homeland Security appropriations bill calls for much stricter review
of CAPPS II before funding is approved. On June 17 the House Appropriations Committee voted to withhold fiscal 2004 funding for CAPPS II, pending a review by the General Accounting Office.
In addition, the National Academy of Sciences will study the system's effects on passengers' privacy and civil liberties.
Guns in the Cockpit?
While the TSA works to hone its technology, there's another controversial plan for tightening up security in the air — providing commercial airline pilots with guns.
Those who are in favor of armed pilots say there must be a last line of defense in case of another
terrorist attack by air. Those opposed feel the safety risk of guns in the cockpit far outweigh their potential value.
In April the TSA graduated the first 44 pilots trained to carry guns as part of a prototype program. These pilots are not required to take a
weapon with them every time they fly, but when they do, the must inform the airlines and the flight crew. Passengers will not know if a pilot is armed.
Not all pilots will be allowed to carry guns. Of the approximately 75,000 commercial airline pilots,
only volunteers can enter the program. These candidates must pass background checks and psychological tests and make it through a week of intensive physical training.
Admiral James Loy, head of the TSA, sees the training process as critical. "I have infinite respect for the skill set necessary to safely pilot an aircraft from point A to point B," says Loy, but "I don't for a moment believe there is a natural transition that that same skill set is the competence necessary to make the judgments associated with pulling a weapon and discharging it into a human being."
Read the transcript of Gwen Ifill's interview with James Loy or add your comments to our online discussion.