My husband is on the government's terrorist watch list

May 28, 2006|By SARAH O'BRIEN

My husband is not a terrorist.

He's not an ex-convict, a felon or on the lam, and if you don't count the occasional Post-it notes or paper clips that come home with him from the office, he's not even a petty thief.

But so far, he's had trouble convincing the government of this.

Every time he flies, regardless of the airline, he gets flagged when he checks in because he's on our government's terrorist watch list. As it was explained to us the first time it happened, something about his name, Michael Patrick O'Brien, creates the need for an airline manager to clear him.

This involves the manager taking a look at my husband and his driver's license and disappearing into the bowels of the airport. We assume this is where the manager accesses a secret computer that somehow confirms my husband is actually just a boringly normal person harboring no nefarious plans.

He's tried in vain to fix the problem. As instructed by a voice at the other end of an 800 number provided to him by an airline agent, he downloaded and filled out a government-issued form and attached three notarized forms of identification: his passport, license and voter registration card.

Although he was irritated that he had to prove his non-terrorist status instead of the government being required to fix its mistake, he faithfully mailed his application for innocence and waited for notice of freedom to arrive. Surprisingly, a response came within a couple of weeks. The Transportation Security Administration sent him a letter that could only have been written by a government lawyer. A sentence reads, "Where it has been determined that a correction to records is warranted, these records have been modified to address any delay or denial of boarding that you may have experienced as a result of the watch list screening process."

My husband read the sentence eight times and arrived at the following conclusion: Thanks to the "is warranted" part of that sentence, the problem wasn't necessarily fixed.

He was right.

The last time he flew, he was flagged. He called the TSA and was told that there is a problem in getting the agency's computer records to match the airlines' records. This is something the government apparently is trying to fix. But if this goes anything like the government's attempts to "fix" Social Security or the nation's health care system, my husband could be in the grave before his name is off the list.

This is more than a minor annoyance. When we recently traveled with our two young children, the lengthy delay in clearance caused the four of us to be separated on the plane. As any parent knows, flying with young children is hard enough without the parents sitting in different areas of the plane and unable to jointly manage the kids' behavior. To all the nearby passengers who were annoyed by our kids, I can offer only this: Blame your government.

My husband also can't use self-check-in kiosks. The computer rejects his request for a boarding pass and he has to check in with a human, who will temporarily reject him again and make him wait.

The process is also an embarrassment. Inevitably, other passengers inch away from him when an insensitive airline agent announces that his name is on the terrorist watch list. He stands there, waiting like a leper, as word passes among passengers that a potential hijacker is in their midst. Smiling reassuringly at his fellow flying mates does little to appease their concern.

In addition, he has nearly missed several flights because of the delay in getting the secret computer to approve his boarding pass.

I'm all for protecting our citizenry from true terrorists. And I suspect the intent of the watch list is a good one. Maybe it's even prevented wannabe shoe bombers and the like from getting on a plane filled with innocent people like my husband.

The problem, though, is that, as with most of the government-sponsored ideas intended to protect the masses from the threat of terrorists, a line of privacy and respect has been crossed for a citizen who just wants to live his life quietly and board planes without problems.

We're not sure whether there's any recourse now, nor are we sure we shouldn't simply suck up the inevitable delay as part of our patriotic duty in supporting our country's war against terror.

But frankly, if the government can't even manage to successfully get my husband's name off the list when it's proved that it didn't belong there in the first place, how much assurance can our elected leaders give that much thought is given to whose name gets put on the list?

Sarah O'Brien is a former reporter and editor who lives in Hampstead. Her e-mail is obrienmsck@adelphia.net.

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