It is hard to know if the refusal of the Department of Homeland Security to resolve the ongoing issues with its terrorist watch list is due to indifference or incompetence. Maybe it's equal parts of both? But it is really quite remarkable that the department's secretary, Michael Chertoff, offered little more than a shrug to the problem that some federal air marshals face boarding planes. Because their names are similar to ones on the list, even air marshals are being delayed and at times prevented from traveling aboard their assigned flights.
Chertoff can't possibly be okay with this, and if he is, maybe he's not up to the job of securing the nation.
There are more than 900,000 names on the terrorist watch, many of which are common, such as Robert Johnson, meaning that the list can ensnare hundreds of thousands of people. This unreliable and bloated list is growing at an average clip of 20,000 per month, according to a 2007 report by the Justice Department inspector general.
A passenger who is flagged by the list has to go through added security procedures that can take hours, causing missed flights. Some are denied boarding, period.
While there is a procedure in place under the Transportation Security Administration that allows people to get their names off the list, so far only about 15,000 lucky people have successfully navigated it. Meanwhile, some major airlines register thousands of hits against innocent travelers every day. The only thing worse than the inconvenience is the inexcusable waste of manpower spent dealing with all these false positives.
The problems have been known for years. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., famously found himself regularly flagged. And former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa once disclosed that he too was having trouble flying because his name was on the no-fly list.
Now it turns out even federal air marshals are getting caught in this error-laden web. As reported by the Washington Times, air marshals say it has been "a major problem, where guys are denied boarding by the airline." Aren't they supposed to be on the plane to provide security?
Chertoff's answer to the air marshals' predicament, and that of thousands of other innocent travelers who are regularly snagged, was to announce a new program that allowed airline passengers to register with each airline they fly. His effort to pawn this problem off on the airlines is irresponsible at best. He needs to comprehensively address the endemic problems with the list itself. It is so outdated and faulty that Nelson Mandela remains on it. Congress is now in the process of trying to remove him and other members of South Africa's African National Congress, but that isn't going to help the Robert Johnsons of the world.
We now know that the terrorist watch list is more than a prime example of government incompetence; it is interfering with passenger safety by keeping air marshals from their duties.
From the start, the terrorist watch list program has been unworkable and ineffective, and yet years later the problems with it have just gotten worse.
Michael Chertoff, you're doing a heckuva job.