Agents with the Federal Air Marshal Service (Photo: Transportation Security Administration)
If the federal government doesn’t want the 47,000 people on its No-Fly List to board airplanes, those individuals should be banned from ever owning guns, President Obama argued in his Sunday address from the Oval Office – but if his proposal ever becomes law, America could see U.S. Marines, congressmen, journalists and even federal air marshals mistakenly stripped of their firearms.
“To begin with, Congress should act to make sure no one on a No-Fly List is able to buy a gun,” Obama said Dec. 6. “What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to but a semi-automatic weapon? This is a matter of national security.”
But even the federal Government Accountability Office has indicated thousands of innocent people have been mistakenly linked to terror watchlists. Some experts and critics contend the federal list process contains many errors and relies on an overly broad standard of reasonable suspicion.
‘No guns’ for congressmen, Marines and feds?
Under Obama’s standard, even the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy, an ardent advocate of gun control while he served in Congress, would be blocked from purchasing a firearm.
In March 2004, Kennedy was stopped three times at airports in Washington, D.C., and Boston. Airline agents told the senator he couldn’t purchase a ticket because his name was on a list, according to USA Today.
“If they have that kind of difficulty with a member of Congress, how in the world are average Americans – who are getting caught up in this thing – how are they going to be treated fairly and not have their rights abused?” Kennedy asked then-Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson.
Kennedy wasn’t alone. Many other unsuspecting Americans have had similar experiences. In 2014, Politico reported Fox News contributor Steve Hayes was listed in the federal terrorist database after he traveled to Istanbul for a cruise.
“When I went online to check in with Southwest, they wouldn’t let me. I figured it was some glitch,” he said. “Then I got to the airport and went to check in. The woman had a concerned look on her face. She brought over her supervisor and a few other people. Then they shut down the lane I was in, took me to the side, told me I was a selectee and scrawled [something] on my ticket.”
Hayes said a Southwest Airlines agent later informed him that he was on the government’s terrorist watchlist.
Many children under the age of five have generated false positives when their names were listed among those on the No-Fly List. One 18-month-old baby was pulled off a JetBlue flight in 2012.
In 2003 , 71-year-old Milwaukee nun Sister Virgine Lawinger had her travel plans interrupted.
In 2006, a U.S. Marine had his trip home to Minneapolis from Iraq delayed when his name appeared on the list.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said he was stopped between 35 and 40 times in only a year after his name appeared on the list in 2003.
Even members of the Federal Air Marshal Service said they were blocked from boarding planes in 2008 after their names appeared in the database.
One marshal told the Washington Times it’s “a major problem, where guys are denied boarding by the airline.”
“In some cases, planes have departed without any coverage because the airline employees were adamant they would not fly,” said the air marshal, who requested anonymity due to the nature of his job. “I’ve seen guys actually being denied boarding.”
Another air marshal told the Times one agent had been “getting harassed for six years because his exact name is on the no-fly list.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told CNN Sunday that most people on the No-Fly List don’t even belong there: “These are everyday Americans that have nothing to do with terrorism. … The majority of people on the No-Fly List are often times people that just basically have the same name as somebody else who doesn’t belong on the No-Fly List.”
Even the left-leaning website Vox.com noted, “While the criteria for what sorts of ‘threats’ get placed on the no-fly list is specific, the evidence that can be used to put someone on the no-fly list – or any government watch list – is pretty thin. The government is trying to predict whether people who have never committed any acts of terrorism before will commit one now, and that involves a lot of what the government calls ‘predictive judgments’ and its critics call guesswork.”
Terrorist Screening Database and the No-Fly List
The FBI maintains the Terrorist Screening Database, which was estimated in a 2009 Justice Department audit to contain “more than 1.1 million known or suspected terrorist identities.”
In many cases, a single person on the list was found to have more than one identity. According to leaked government documents published by the Intercept, in 2013 there were 680,000 people actually on the list.
And more than 40 percent of those names (280,000 people) were found to have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” Tim Healy, an FBI veteran who runs the Terrorist Screening Center, told CBS News, “We don’t confirm anyone’s existence on the watch list.”
The FBI says a person’s name may be added to the federal watchlist “when there is reasonable suspicion that the person is a known or suspected terrorist. To meet the reasonable suspicion standard, nominating agencies must rely upon articulable intelligence or information which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrants a determination that an individual is known or suspected to be or have been knowingly engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism or terrorist activities.”
The No-Fly List – a subset of the Terrorist Screening Database – reportedly listed 47,000 people in 2013.
“Inclusion on the No Fly List prohibits an individual wo may present a threat to civil aviation or national security from boarding a commercial aircraft that will fly into, out of, over, or within United States airspace … Before an individual may be placed on the No Fly List, there must be credible information that demonstrates the individual poses a threat of committing a violent act of terrorism with respect to civil aviation, the homeland, United States interests located abroad, or is operationally capable of doing so.”
David Gomez, a former senior FBI special agent, told the Intercept that the watchlist system is “revving out of control.”
“If everything is terrorism, then nothing is terrorism,” he said.
Gomez expressed concern that the database is being compiled based merely on a vague concept of reasonable suspicion.
“You need some fact-basis to say a guy is a terrorist, that you know to a probable-cause standard that he is a terrorist,” Gomez told the Intercept. “Then I say, ‘Build as big a file as you can on him.’ But if you just suspect that somebody is a terrorist? Not so much.”
Vox.com said the government’s “reasonable suspicion” standard includes Facebook and Twitter posts.
“There’s also a way for the government to add whole categories of people (like anyone who ‘traveled to a particular country in a particular year) to the no-fly list temporarily – if it has specific reasons for doing so,” Vox explained. “The ‘upgrade’ (as it’s called) can last for 72 hours without official review, and can get extended indefinitely every 30 days if ‘senior officials’ agree it’s necessary.
“The temporary ‘upgrade’ could be an implementation nightmare in and of itself for making the no-fly list a no-gun list. Would people who’d temporarily been put on the no-fly list be told they couldn’t buy a gun, period? Would they be told to come back after the upgrade had been lifted? Would the government put in place a way for an individual person to exempt himself from the group terror ‘upgrade?’”
Anyone may request removal from the terror watchlist by contacting the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. From fiscal year 2006 to 2008, the FBI processed an average of 2,710 watchlist record removals each year.
TSA misses 73 people with suspected terror links
In another twist this week involving the terror list, Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., told Boston Public Radio that the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security found at least six-dozen individuals “on the terrorist watch list that were actually working at the Department of Homeland Security.”
Asked why he supported a GOP bill to tighten screening requirements for Syrian and Iraqi refugees earlier this month, Lynch said, “I have very low confidence based on empirical data that we’ve got on the Department of Homeland Security. I think we desperately need another set of eyeballs looking at the vetting process.”
Lynch mistakenly identified the suspects as DHS employees. The 73 employees he referenced were airport and airline employees screened by the Transportation Security Agency, or TSA.
Every day, TSA is responsible for screening an estimated 2 million air passengers at 441 airports across America. TSA agents also screen airport and airline workers before they enter secure areas, and the TSA conducts security background checks for those workers through its badging process.
When a person wants to work at an airport or for an airline, TSA checks the names against the Terrorist Screening Database and performs criminal background and immigration status checks.
However, according to a June 2015 OIG report, TSA missed the 73 individuals with “terrorism-related category codes because TSA is not authorized to receive all terrorism-related information under current interagency watchlisting policy.”