Airport security in the USA is a joke, and a bad one at that. It’s easy to create a fake boarding pass with Photoshop. And it’s not much harder to create fake identification documents.
Indeed, the entire airline security process is essentially "security theater," a term coined by programmer and security consultant Bruce Schneier. The objective is to make us “feel safer,” even though the process does nothing to actually make us safer.
A sterling example of security theater is the “No Fly List”; those unfortunates not permitted to fly on commercial flights in or out of the US. This list contains about 47,000 names, according to a March 2013 National Counterterrorism Center document leaked to the press. About 800 of them are US citizens.
Individuals on this list enter a world worthy of a Kafka novel’s plot. Until very recently, you had no right to find out why you were denied the right to enter or leave the US by air. You couldn’t even find out if you were on the No Fly List, much less determine the basis for your apparent inclusion, nor could you obtain assurances about future travel.
I know two people who are, or at least thought they were, on this list. One of them was able to get off the list after hiring a very expensive lawyer. The other one purchased his own private jet when his lawyers couldn’t figure out a way to help him.
Of course, most people facing this dilemma don’t have the means to hire expensive lawyers, much less purchase a private jet. One of them is a US citizen, veteran, and former civilian military contractor named Raymond Knaeble. In 2010, after visiting his wife’s family in Colombia, an airline official told him he couldn’t board his return flight to the US.
Stranded in Colombia away from his wife and daughter in Texas, Knaeble eventually returned to the US by bus, after a harrowing journey through Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. With assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Knaeble and nine other individuals facing the same problem subsequently sued the Department of Justice. They demanded to know if they were on the No Fly List, why they were being denied the right to fly internationally, and to be given the opportunity to clear their names.
The litigation took a tortuous path through the courts. But in 2013, the US District Court for Oregon ruled that being placed on the No Fly List was a serious deprivation of constitutional rights. A year later, it ruled the government’s system for challenging inclusion on the No Fly List is unconstitutional. It also ordered the government to confirm to the plaintiffs whether they were on the list and why.
In 2014, the government finally told some of the plaintiffs that they weren’t on the list and gave the others unclassified summaries for the reasons for their placement on it. However, the government continues to withhold evidence and refuses to give individuals on the list a hearing to challenge their inclusion on it.
It turns out that Raymond Knaeble is on the No Fly List. He appears to be on it because he converted to Islam and traveled to Yemen in 2009 to undergo religious instruction. Neither of these actions is a criminal offense, a misdemeanor, or even a civil offense. That doesn’t matter, though, because we now know the list is based on a predictive model about conduct that may or may not occur.
The evidence suggests that this model results only in “false positive” responses. Indeed, the ACLU’s lawyers have filed a declaration from a recognized expert in terrorist profiling, who declared:
“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… [T]he result is that many false positives are never corrected, which… contributes to a high error rate when attempting to predict political violence. 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. No terror attack has ever been thwarted as a result of the No Fly List. And special agents of the FBI receive monetary rewards for putting people on it. That’s an invitation for abuse wrapped in a big red bow.
And to stay off the No Fly List? For starters, avoid being Muslim. Don’t travel anywhere controversial. And don’t do anything that would lead an FBI special agent to put you on the list in the first place.
There is, of course, another solution: Get a passport from a country where institutionalized insanity is less pervasive than in the US. If you’re not eligible for citizenship by virtue of your ancestry or marital status, consider acquiring a second nationality from the growing number of countries that offer a “citizenship by investment” program. The Commonwealth of Dominica is my top-rated program, but there are many others to consider as well.
With a second passport, you can travel to “controversial” countries without leaving a telltale record in your US passport. And if you do find yourself exiled outside the US, you’ll still have a place to legally reside.
It wouldn’t hurt to start that process now, before you, like Raymond Knaeble, find yourself stranded and unable to depart from – or return to – the US.