An Imperfect System

Citizens Complain About the Flaws in the Operation of the No-Fly List

In nearly four years after September 11, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration still have not devised a concrete system with the distribution of the no-fly list—a tactic for determining what names should and should not be on the list still remains unclear.

A lapse in the distribution of the list is to partly blame for last Wednesday’s abrupt u-turn flight of the British Airways flight 175, carrying 239 passengers.  The flight left from London’s Heathrow airport and was scheduled to land at New York’s JFK Airport. A U.S. government official told CNN that the method by which the list is distributed had been recently changed and this could have resulted in the lapse of information to British Airways.

Although U.S. government officials are not disclosing any particular information about the person in question, reports have confirmed that after Flight 175 landed at Heathrow, the person was taken into Metropolitan Police custody. He was questioned and later released.

While reports also confirm that the person was of no threat to Flight 175 and that it was British Airways’ decision to return to London and not to divert to Bangor, Maine at the request of federal authorities, the no-fly list still raises a question of people’s civil liberties being ignored.

Although he has never been told if his name appears on the no-fly list, Sameer, of Uxbridge, London has had his share of being held over and questioned by the Transportation authorities. 

“At immigration control, sometimes I am asked the questions and frisked for checking by hand and metal detectors. Basically I see this because of my name and being a Muslim, especially in the U.S.” says Sameer.

In April of 2004, the Seattle office of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on the behalf of several plaintiffs who all claimed they were inconvenienced because their names appeared on the no-fly list, even after the first mishap and they were supposed to be cleared.

Among the many innocent names to have appeared on the list has been Sen. Ted. Kennedy and rock singer Cat Stevens, who now goes by the name of Yusuf Islam.  In some instances, U.S. government officials have explained that the person’s name is on the list because a suspect terrorist is using it as an alias.

An August 2004 report conducted by Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General has praised the progress of the terrorist watch list, but have pointed out that a lack of a strategic plan, unclear budgeting and agency staffing issues have hindered the progress and there is room for improvement.

 The no-fly list is one of two lists designed by the U.S. government to protect the American public from potential terrorist suspects.  It contains the names of individuals, their date of birth, nationalities and passport numbers.  Those listed on the no-fly list are not allowed to board a commercial flight.  The second list is a “selectee” list in which an individual must go through more extensive screening before boarding a flight.