Four weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush issued a series of directives to expand risk screening of airline passengers.
In 2003, in accordance with Bush’s instructions, the FBI established the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC). This division integrated various watchlists of suspected terrorists by more than a dozen federal agencies into a consolidated database called the Terrorist Screening Database.
Colloquially, the database became known as the “terrorist watchlist.” And it gave 24/7 responses to federal, state, and local governments to assist in screening for individuals with possible ties to terrorism.
A subset of the terrorist watchlist was also established – the No-Fly List. But the No-Fly List actually dates all the way back to >1990 with a list of individuals who were “determined to pose a direct threat to US civil aviation.”
On September 11, 2001, the No-Fly List contained a grand total of >16 names. But by 2014, it had expanded to >64,000 names. The terrorist watchlist is much larger, with about >1.16 million names as of June 2017.
From the outset of the No-Fly List, we criticized and lampooned it. In an article I wrote for The Sovereign Society in May 2003, I wrote the primary intent of the No-Fly List appeared to be “not to protect the public, but to prevent individuals with a reputation for advocating civil liberties from traveling by air.”
That remark proved prescient, when in 2007 we learned that one way to wind up on the No-Fly List was to criticize the government. That year, former Princeton University law professor Walter Murphy asked an airline employee why he was detained when trying to board a flight.
The employee asked, “Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that.” Murphy responded that he had not marched but he had given a lecture that criticized President George W. Bush for violating the Constitution.
“>That’ll do it,” the employee responded.
In 2006, we explained why the entire terrorist screening program was almost useless for identifying actual terrorists. What it was effective for, we concluded, was “to engage in mass political intelligence gathering.”
Then in 2007, we questioned the extreme secrecy associated with many aspects of the War on Terror, including the No-Fly List. As we put it:
You wouldn’t want terrorists to actually know their name is on a no-fly list, right? Otherwise, they might not want to fly. But isn’t that the goal: to keep terrorists off of airplanes?
Then in 2008, we pondered whether having the names of >dead people on the No-Fly list actually contributed to safer air travel. And we continued to search for any evidence we could to demonstrate that somehow, these lists were making air travel safer.
We were unable to find any such evidence. But in 2015, we described the plight of a US citizen, veteran, and former civilian military contractor named Raymond Knaeble. He learned he had been placed on the No-Fly List in 2010, when he was forbidden to board a flight back to the United States from Colombia.
With the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, Knaeble and nine other people sued the Department of Justice to find out why they were being denied the right to fly internationally, and to be given the opportunity to clear their names.
In the course of gathering evidence, the ACLU discovered that the predictive model the FBI uses to place individuals on the No-Fly List results exclusively in “false positive” responses. Worse, according to >a declaration the ACLU filed from Marc Sageman, a recognized expert in terrorist profiling:
The government has not tested the validity of any of its indicators, or derogatory information, and does not know the rate of error resulting from them… FBI special agents are promoted and rewarded – even with monetary bonuses – based on providing derogatory information on US persons, while admission of error or new information that exonerates someone from suspicion tends not to be rewarded. The fact [is] that the very few individuals who attempted to, or in fact did, engage in political violence in the last several years were not placed by the government on the No-Fly List.
So, there you have it: proof that the No-Fly List is merely security theater – a measure designed to make people believe they’re more secure without actually improving their security. And the fact that FBI agents are rewarded for putting law-abiding citizens on the No-Fly List is an invitation for abuse wrapped in a big red bow.
Then in 2019, we learned that Uncle Sam shared its terrorist watchlist with more than >1,400 private entities. At the time, we wondered if having the watchlist distributed that widely might ultimately result in its accidental disclosure, or for hackers to retrieve it. But we hoped that the No-Fly List, which presumably is shared only with airlines, would be more secure.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be wishful thinking.
Last month, a Swiss hacker >discovered that an unsecured server run by regional American air carrier >Commuteair held a file created in 2019 called “NoFly.csv.” According to the hacker, the list had more than 1.5 million entries, which included names as well as birthdates. A second file, titled “selectee.csv,” contained more than 250,000 names of people who are subject to additional screening while flying.
Many of the names included multiple aliases, so the number of unique names was far less than 1.75 million. For instance, Russian arms dealer Victor Bout was on the NoFly.csv list, along with 16 possible aliases he used. But the vast majority of names appeared to be Arabic in origin. Indeed, more than 10% of the entries in the NoFly.csv file contained the name “Muhammad.”
Let’s connect the dots, shall we?
To the best of our knowledge, the No-Fly List has never prevented an actual terrorist from boarding an airplane. But the list has prevented untold numbers of non-terrorists from traveling due to their political opinions or the fact that they have Arabic-sounding names.
With that background in mind, we have a modest proposal: abolish the No-Fly List. Give responsibility for keeping terrorists off airplanes back to the companies that have the most to lose from the companies that have the biggest stake in making sure it’s done right: the airlines. We suspect the result would be a security apparatus a lot like the one used >by Israel, where every passenger is briefly interviewed before they board their flight.
Naturally, that isn’t going to happen. So be prepared for more breaches of supposedly secure government databases, along with endless security theater.
Hopefully, you’ll never be placed on the No-Fly List. But if you are, you’ll appreciate the utility of a second passport, “just in case.” No, you won’t be able to leave or enter the United States by air. But once you’ve departed, you’ll be able to travel free of US government-imposed restrictions.