A List You Don't Want to Makeby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
For years, innocent travelers have been subject to extra scrutiny at airports that seems unwarranted, if not silly. In many cases the traveler shares the name of someone on a terror watch list, and that triggers a closer review. But there's a renewed push to clear the names of the innocent and speed their way through security checks.
St. Paul, Minn. — Why would a 56-year-old doctor, a woman with no run-ins with the law, get an extended check every time she goes through security at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport?
That's what Mayrua Shrestha Rutherford is wondering. That 56-year-old physician from Nepal is her mother.
"The last time they actually did a physical frisking," Rutherford says.
Rutherford's mother has visited the Twin Cities four times in recent years. Each time, Rutherford's mom has endured especially through screenings, including checks for explosive residue.
Rutherford can't fathom how her mother's name could be on watch list.
"Her name is Shobha Shrestha," she says. "The name is a typical Nepali name."
Transportation Security Administration employees tell Rutherford Northwest Airlines flags her mother for special screenings. But Rutherford says Northwest employees tell a different story.
"NWA people told me, 'Well, you know, this is something the computer generates,'" says Rutherford.
The computer scans a watch list that comes from the federal government. Airline employees are responsible for checking passengers' names against the list. When there's a match, the person is subject to more extensive security checks.
Northwest says it doesn't comment on the watch list process, in accordance with an agreement with the federal government.
But the TSA and airlines have long blamed each other for screw-ups related to watch lists.
"Some airlines do a very good job of matching to the watch lists and the cleared lists, and some do not," says TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon.
"Every day, TSA sends watch lists to the airlines," she says. "We also send what is called a cleared list. Those would be individuals who might have a similar name but we have verified their identity and know those people are indeed not on a watch list."
But Harmon says airline employees often tell travelers they're on a watch list when the travelers are not. And Harmon says that leads to lots of wild misconceptions.
"There are no children on watch lists," she says. "We don't put senators or reporters or others who are critical of the government on watch lists. There are not millions of people on watch lists."
Actually, she says there are fewer than 50,000 people on the watch- and no-fly lists used by the TSA. And Harmon says if you're truly on a non-fly list, you absolutely won't fly.
The lists are maintained by the FBI.
The airline industry admits employees may be too quick to tell a traveler he or she is on watch list simply because the traveler's name is close to one on a watch list.
"We as an industry have to do a better job working with the TSA on the language we use when we have identified somebody who has a name that matches someone on the list," says David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the nation's airlines.
Come January, the TSA plans to take over the task of checking passenger names against watch lists. The long-delayed, much-anticipated initiative is dubbed "Secure Flight."
The TSA's Harmon says the new program should greatly reduce misidentifications.
But the TSA has been trying for years to clear up problems plaguing watch lists.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar is co-sponsoring legislation intended to prod the TSA into devising a watch list program that doesn't regularly ensnare innocent people.
"The bottom line is the whole idea of putting this list together was government initiated," Klobuchar says. "And I believe we have a responsibility to fix it."
The legislation Klobuchar is backing requires the Department of Homeland Security to establish a "one-stop shop" to make it quicker and easier for people to clear themselves.
Klobuchar says watch lists are riddled with inaccuracies and the TSA's current review process for travelers is slow and unreliable.
About 39,000 travelers have asked the Department of Homeland Security to flag them as folks who are not security threats, just because of their names. The feds have reviewed about 22,000 of those requests and cleared individuals who are not on watch lists.
The government doesn't reveal how many people have been cleared, though.
Mayrua Shrestha Rutherford says her mother is back in Nepal now.
"I don't know if she wants to be here again," she says. "Because of feeling humiliated when you know you haven't done anything wrong and yet there are no answers to why you're going through this. And it seems unfair. It feels unfair."
- Morning Edition, 08/27/2008, 7:20 a.m.