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Well after 9/11, 'no fly' lists a work in progress

The government is working on a new process to screen possible terrorists, but some passengers are still dismayed over name mix-ups.

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Tom Burke recently tried to print out a boarding pass from home before one of the frequent flights he takes.

He couldn't. When the San Francisco lawyer got to the airport, he was told the reason: His name, or one similar to it, is now on one of the Transportation Security Administration's terrorist watch lists.

"There was a certain irony to it," says Mr. Burke, a First Amendment expert who is suing the federal government on behalf of others who have found themselves on either the TSA's "no fly" or "selectee" list.

Almost 3-1/2 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a year and a half after Congress ordered law-enforcement agencies to consolidate and coordinate its terrorist screening processes, the status of the watch lists remains uncertain and is a cause of frustration for thousands of travelers as well as the nation's airlines.

Every day, thousands of people like Burke find themselves unable to do things like print a boarding pass and are pulled aside for extensive screening because their name, or a name that sounds like theirs, is on one of the watch lists. Even well-known lawmakers, like Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, have found themselves caught in the screening dragnet.

From the TSA's perspective, the screening is just one of the many new layers of increased security that are designed to thwart terrorist activity. The inconvenience is regrettable, but a price that society has to pay for security. And for national security reasons, the FBI and other government agencies responsible for supplying names to the lists will not divulge the criteria they use. They say that would amount to tipping their hands to the terrorists.

"People on the lists are known threats to civil aviation or suspected threats," says Amy Von Walter, a TSA spokeswoman. "There is no tie to political affiliation, race, creed, etc."

The TSA does acknowledge some problems with the current system. For instance, if your name is the same, or even sounds the same as someone on the list, you will be pulled over for additional screening. So the TSA has set up an ombudsman process for people who feel they are on the list unfairly. (The number to call is 866-289-9673, or the e-mail address is tsa-contactcenter@dhs.gov.) The TSA is also working on a new screening process called "Secure Flight." The TSA hopes that eventually it will lessen the confusion between the Tom Burkes who may be suspected terrorists and those who are upstanding local citizens.

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