Monday, April 30, 2007

Doesn't Fly

[posted by Callimachus]

No doubt by now you've seen this account of a respected academic, Walter F. Murphy, who ran into a wall of bureaucracy while trying to get on an airline flight earlier this year. He was told he was on "the Terrorist Watch list."

"Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that," asked the airline employee.

"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the Constitution."

"That'll do it," the man said.

Now, you don't have to be some maniacal minion of Shrubbie McChimplerburton to touch this third-hand story only with a 10-foot pole. The professor might be perfectly accurate in his account (I am sure he is), and he may have been told exactly those words.

But if you've ever worked with people who have to man the trenches in the wars that bureaucracies declare, you'll recognize what might have happened. People who have to face the angry and uncomprehending customers, and who have no power to answer them or to aid them, and who frankly think the policies are absurd in the first place, can most easily end the ugliness by making an emphatic statement that the people high up who make the rules are insane and there's nothing you can do about it.

I've been a meter reader, and a department store clerk, and a newspaper reporter. I've been there a few times.

Which is one possible explanation for the thing. It might not be right, but it might make more sense than the automatic presumption that an American Airlines check-in clerk knows the highest-level operating rules of the FBI's no-fly policies.

The lists are a big muddle. Everyone's heard the stories of mistaken identities. A 6-year-old child or a prominent Congressman are told they can't fly because they happen to share the names of prominent IRA terrorists.

The Wall Street Journal -- alone among media outlets, as far as I can tell -- took the trouble to ask a question or two about this. They talked to Kip Hawley, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.

... According to Hawley, the only list a passenger might be on that would prevent him from boarding a plane is the "no fly" list. Since Murphy did ultimately get on the plane, he self-evidently was not on that list. Hawley says it is possible that someone with the same name was on the list; such an error befell Ted Kennedy in 2004.

More likely, though, Murphy was a "selectee"--chosen for heightened security by a process that is part random, part based on a variety of factors, most of which are not publicly disclosed, but which are known to include holding a one-way ticket and purchasing a ticket in cash.

This has happened to us on numerous occasions. If you have ever had a row of S's appear on your boarding pass, and been taken out of the main line at the security checkpoint to have your bags searched, it has happened to you as well. Selectees, Hawley explained to us, are not allowed to check in at curbside but must go to the ticket counter, as in Murphy's case.

As for the anonymous check-in clerk's version,

... There are two problems with this. First, federal terrorist watch lists are compiled not by political appointees but by career professionals at the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, who, according to Hawley, would balk at any effort to list people for political reasons. Second, airline clerks have no way of knowing why a passenger is a selectee or on the no-fly list; they know only that he is. If the clerk actually said what Murphy claims he did, he was either joking or expressing his own (ill-informed) political opinion.

None of which prevented the story from being embedded in the core of one of the ten reasons America is becoming a fascist nation, according to Naomi Wolf, writing for the pleasure an enlightenment of our European friends.