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Flight Risks

Flight Risks
Dave Johnson, proprietor of Seeing The Forest, is blogging from the Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum at the Carter Center this week. I'm looking forward to reading his commentary. You can read his first day impressions here. It's a wonderful read.

But this post isn't about what he's doing in Atlanta. This post is about what Dave had to deal with to get to Atlanta.

When Dave flew out to Atlanta yesterday, he's found that he is now one of the unfortunate people that shares a name with someone on one of the watch lists which means he can't check-in to flights online or use the kiosks and has to wait in line at the airport until someone is satisfied that he isn't the person that they are looking for. Dave describes the experience here:

When I finally got through the line to the check-in counter I was told that "Dave Johnson' is "on a list" now.

The inconvenience that Dave now must endure could last a long, long time. After all, the No-Fly List had some 44,000 names by 2006 and an additional 75,000 names are on a second list that the government feels needs special screening. 60 Minutes broadcast a piece on this bureaucratic nightmare in 2006 and updated it for their June 7, 2007 show. It turns out that bearing a popular name can be a real pain for people. 60 Minutes interviewed twelve people that shared a name of someone on one of the watch lists.

It also has created enormous frustration and aggravation for thousands of innocent travelers who have the misfortune of sharing a name with someone on the list and some of the names are among the most common in America. Like Gary Smith, John Williams or Robert Johnson. 60 Minutes found 12 of them and brought them to New York for an interview.

In New York, Kroft spoke to the group, all of them named Robert Johnson; all said they have trouble getting on airplanes.

They don’t look like a very dangerous group. There is a politician, a soccer coach, businessmen, even a member of the military. Yet they say they are pulled aside and interrogated, sometimes for hours until someone at the Transportation Security Administration decides they are not the Robert Johnson on the No Fly List. And they say it happens nearly every time they go to the airport.

"Oh, at least – at least 15 to 20 times. At least," one of the Robert Johnsons tells Kroft.

"Probably for close to 100 segments, every time I would go to get onto an airplane, I would have to go through the process," another says.

"I had my military ID and you know, I go on military bases all the time," Robert Johnson says. "So I can get on any base in the country, but I can't fly on a plane, because I am on the No Fly List."

The Robert Johnson meant to be on the No Fly List would seem to be the known alias of a 62-year-old black man who was convicted of plotting to bomb a Hindu temple and a movie theatre in Toronto. After serving 12 years, he was deported to Trinidad. But the airlines ticket agents don’t have any of that information on their computer screens. They just have the name, not even a date of birth.

"There's gotta be some common sense in there. Somebody behind that desk has to say, 'This isn't the guy they're looking for.' Come on," one remarks.

Asked what is the worst part of the experience, one of the Johnsons tells Kroft, "The humiliation factor. And, I get calls on my cell phone from my coworkers saying, 'You gonna make the flight? You gonna make the flight?' And, I'm sitting here in a panic sweatin' and, you know, to an extent he's thinking like 'Or, am I traveling with a criminal here?'"

One of the Robert Johnsons was even strip-searched. "I had to take off my pants, I had to take off my sneakers, then I had to take off my socks. I was treated like a criminal."

And there is not much they can do about it. Right now their only recourse is to apply to get on another list of people who shouldn’t be on the list. Donna Bucella of the Terrorist Screening Center says the inconvenience is regrettable, but it’s a price society and anyone named Robert Johnson has to pay for security.

"Well, Robert Johnson will never get off the list," Bucella states.

And she acknowledges that the inconvenience won't go away. "Well, they're gonna be inconvenienced every time they try to go to the kiosk or try to do a curbside check-in because they do have the name of a person who's a known or suspected terrorist," she says.

So what's the answer to this totally insane situation? If Dave's now on the list, how long will it take the a bunch more of us will be on it too? And how do you get on the list? Could it be that it came about because the Feds were spying on your calls?

One thing that might make force the government to change this insane policy of creating massive and totally unworkable lists would be for a whole slew of us to change our names to something like "Dave Johnson" in solidarity. What do you think?


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