The usual suspects?

April 13, 2004

MASTER SGT. Michelle D. Green. The Rev. John F. Shaw, and his son, John F. Shaw Jr. Mohamed Ibrahim, who works for the Quaker group American Friends Service Committee. Lawyers David Nelson and David C. Fathi. College junior Alexandra Hay.

To the Transportation Security Administration, all are potential terrorists worthy of investigation every time they try to board a plane. Now they are part of a class action lawsuit asking TSA to hone its methods so fewer innocents are netted -- and so that if they are, they can be deleted from the list.

All are Americans. All are repeatedly stopped at the ticket counter and not allowed to check in using e-tickets or curbside check-in. Their names match somewhat a name on the TSA's secret list of detainees. None knows why, and no one will tell them.

Sometimes they are told they are on the "no-fly" list; sometimes it's blurted out in front of a crowd. Sometimes it takes three hours to clear their names.

Most have applied to be cleared from the list, willingly divulging plenty of personal information. They get back a letter that TSA acknowledges likely won't be immediately accepted by airport security teams.

Mr. Nelson says he has been singled out each of 40 times he has traveled since late 2001. A security coordinator told Mr. Fathi that his last name matched that of someone sought by the government, but the government did not know the first name of its suspect. Are all David Nelsons and all Mr. Fathis facing the same trouble?

The agency's detainee list is so buggy it shouldn't be in use -- and it certainly shouldn't be used as an argument for its privacy-invading next-stage database, nicknamed CAPPS II. The problem with computers is still the raw data, as anyone who has received mislabeled mail or an inaccurate credit report can attest. The current detainee list has not yet aided the capture of one terrorist; other methods work better.

The executive branch is right: It is important that the government ensure that air travel is safe, just as it does train travel, car travel, motorcycle travel and foot travel. But the balance between liberties and protection in this case weighs too heavily toward protection at the expense of liberty. Singling out people based on details of their flight plan is appropriate; singling out people based on a flawed, incomplete list is not. And there's no compelling reason that Americans should need letters of transit just to move about their own country.

One trusts the judicial branch will put checks on this excessive executive reach.

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