The Jan. 18 issue (subscribers only) of Aviation Daily has a story, written by my colleage John "Ringo" Doyle, on how the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will not roll out Secure Flight, its computerized airline passenger screening program, until sometime in 2008.
TSA also announced it is reviewing the No-Fly list, a government watch list of known and suspected terrorists after finding duplication and errors that have barred some innocent travelers from boarding aircraft. "We will shortly conclude a case-by-case review of every name on the No-Fly list," TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told the Senate Commerce Committee.
Ironically enough, this came out one day after "Boston Legal," one of my favorite television shows, aired an episode Jan. 16 entitled "Nuts," which featured a case where main character Denny Crane (played memorably by the legendary William Shatner) was unable to take a romantic trip to Hawaii with his midget girlfriend's mother (never mind -- it would take WAY too long to explain) because he had been put on the No-Fly List.
When the process is completed, Hawley predicted that the No-Fly list will be about half as long as it is now. The oft-delayed Secure Flight program seeks to federalize and centralize the patchwork of flight screening processes now operated by individual airlines. TSA would take responsibility for the list, allowing it to compare passenger names against up-to-date federal watch lists of suspected terrorists -- some of which are classified and unavailable to airline personnel.
But concerns about identity theft, Secure Flight's ability to handle millions of passenger names and the need for a redress process for people wrongfully placed on the watch lists have slowed the program's rollout since it was first planned in 2004. Last February, Hawley ordered a reassessment of the program to address privacy concerns.
Which ties in beautifully with the television show episode. Crane asks Alan Shore (played by James Spader) to try and settle the issue with an official from TSA, who tells them that it takes a pile of paperwork and an "indefinite" amount of time to be removed from the list. So Crane asks Shore to represent him in a lawsuit against the government.
Without going into the fine details, the government says that the list is necessary in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the ongoing war on terror. They apologize that some people are inconvenienced, but said it was the price that had to be paid for security. Shore noted that Ted Kennedy was on the list and was able to be removed because of who he was. He also pointed out U.S. policy that keeps some terrorists off the no-fly list in order not to tip their hand, but that ordinary, non-threatening, law-abiding American citizens remain on the list potentially forever.
Shore closed with a brilliant argument -- that America is the company that built the iPod, which can hold 20,000 songs. America has computer geniuses like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Steve Ballmer, so why can't we tap them to figure out how to filter out names from the no-fly list? He noted that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban would probably do it just for the free publicity. In the end, the judge ordered the government to get Crane off the No-Fly List quickly.
The last I checked, the Constitution -- which has these neat amendments to protect our rights -- had not been suspended. And I think the No-Fly List potentially violates the First Amendment, which allows us to petition the government for a redress of grievances; the Fifth Amendment, which covers due process; and theoretically, the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, which allow for a speedy and public trial by a jury of one's peers.
I understand the need for security. I know that we live in a world where many people want to do bad things to our citizens because we're American. But living in more vigilent times doesn't mean the government can take away our rights under the Constitution in the name of national security. Is it really that hard to cull the No-Fly List to remove law-abiding citizens who happen to be misfortunate enough to have the name of an actual terrorist? Aren't we the nation that sent a man to the moon?
I'll end with a quote from President John F. Kennedy: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."