Flagged by terror watch list: babies

Published Aug. 16, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

Infants have been stopped from boarding planes at airports throughout the U.S. because their names are the same as or similar to those of possible terrorists on the government's "no fly list."

It sounds like a joke, but it's not funny to parents who miss flights while scrambling to have babies' passports and other documents faxed.

Ingrid Sanden's 1-year-old daughter was stopped in Phoenix before boarding a flight home to Washington at Thanksgiving.

"I completely understand the war on terrorism, and I completely understand people wanting to be safe when they fly," Sanden said. "But focusing the target a little bit is probably a better use of resources."

The government's lists of people who are either barred from flying or require extra scrutiny before being allowed to board airplanes grew markedly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union say the government doesn't provide enough information about the people on the lists, so innocent passengers can be caught up in the security sweep if they happen to have the same name as someone on the lists.

That can happen even if the person happens to be an infant like Sanden's daughter. (Children under 2 don't need tickets, but Sanden purchased one for her daughter to make sure she had a seat.)

"It was bizarre," Sanden said. "I was hugely pregnant, and I was like, "We look really threatening.' "

Sarah Zapolsky and her husband had a similar experience last month while departing from Dulles International Airport outside Washington. An airline ticket agent told them their 11-month-old son was on the government list.

They were able to board their flight after ticket agents took a half-hour to fax her son's passport and fill out paperwork.

"I understand that security is important," Zapolsky said. "But if they're just guessing, and we have to give up our passport to prove that our 11-month-old is not a terrorist, it's a waste of their time."

Sanden and Zapolsky asked that their children's names not be used in this story because they fear people who prey on children.

Well-known people like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and David Nelson, who starred in the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, also have been stopped at airports because their names match those on the lists. (As has a David Nelson of St. Petersburg.)

The government has sought to improve its process for checking passengers since the Sept. 11 attacks. The first attempt was scuttled because of fears the government would have access to too much personal information. A new version, called Secure Flight, is being crafted.

But for now, airlines still have the duty to check passengers' names against those supplied by the government. That job has become more difficult _ since the 2001 attacks the lists have swelled from a dozen or so names to more than 100,000 names, though the exact number is restricted information.

Not all those names are accompanied by biographical information that can more closely identify the suspected terrorists. That can create problems for people who reserve flights under such names as "T Kennedy" or "David Nelson."

ACLU lawyer Tim Sparapani said the problem of babies stopped by the no fly list illustrates some of the reasons the lists don't work.

"There's no oversight over the names," Sparapani said. "We know names are added hastily, and when you have a name-based system you don't focus on solid intelligence leads. You focus on names that are similar to those that might be suspicious."

The Transportation Security Administration, which administers the lists, instructs airlines not to deny boarding to children under 12 _ or select them for extra security checks _ even if their names match those on a list.

But it happens anyway. "Our information indicates it happens at every major airport," Debby McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association, said.

The TSA has a "passenger ombudsman" who will investigate individual claims from passengers who say they are mistakenly on the lists. TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said 89 children have submitted their names to the ombudsman. Of those, 14 are under the age of 2.

If the ombudsman determines an individual should not be stopped, additional information on that person is included on the list so he or she is not stopped the next time they fly.

Clark said even with the problems the lists are essential to keeping airline passengers safe.


WHY IT STARTED: After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Transportation Security Administration took over a watch list of people who pose, or are suspected by federal agencies of posing, a threat to aviation or national security.

HOW IT WORKS: There are two lists: a "no fly" list and a "selectee" list. If you're on the no fly list, you won't be allowed to board a plane. If you're on the selectee list, you must undergo extra screening.

WHEN IT DOESN'T WORK: If your name matches or is vaguely similar to one on the lists, you'll be treated as though you're a threat. David Nelsons, for example, have struggled with false matches to their common name. You can fill out a passenger identity verification form that won't remove your name, but may smooth the process the next time you fly.

WHY IT'S STILL USED: The no fly list was to be replaced by a computerized screening system known as CAPPS II. But that was tossed out in August 2004, partly over concerns that personal information wouldn't be protected. Class-action suits were filed on behalf of 12-million passengers whose information was given by airlines to the government without permission. (Suits have also been filed for people falsely flagged by the current system.)

WHAT'S NEXT: TSA is still working on the successor to CAPPS II, known as Secure Flight. The program is supposed to transfer airline passengers' name records _ which can include address, phone number and credit card information _ to a government database. But Congress said the TSA could spend no money to implement Secure Flight until it met 10 conditions to protect privacy and accuracy and prevent it from being abused. In March, the General Accounting Office said nine of the 10 conditions hadn't been met.

Sources: Associated Press,, Times files