Air Marshals On No-Fly List

Some federal air marshals are being repeatedly delayed — or denied — boarding on flights because their name is on a terrorist watch list, Audrey Hudson reports.

False identifications based on a terrorist no-fly list have for years prevented some federal air marshals from boarding flights they are assigned to protect, according to officials with the agency, which is finally taking steps to address the problem. Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) familiar with the situation say the mix-ups, in which marshals are mistaken for terrorism suspects who share the same names, have gone on for years — just as they have for thousands of members of the traveling public.

One air marshal said it has been “a major problem, where guys are denied boarding by the airline.” “In some cases, planes have departed without any coverage because the airline employees were adamant they would not fly,” said the air marshal, who asked not to be named because the job requires anonymity. “I’ve seen guys actually being denied boarding.” A second air marshal said one agent “has been getting harassed for six years because his exact name is on the no-fly list.”

Presumably, these are isolated cases. How many air marshals share a name with a terrorist suspect? One would think, therefore, that this would be a reasonably easy problem to correct, no?

Indeed, one would think that someone who shows up with a gun and an Air Marshal badge would go through a different queue, anyway. How hard would it be to cross check him against the FAM list? Or, for that matter, employ some sort of biometric scan? I had to do that to get into work at a federal facility, even though nobody was carrying guns and there was virtually no classified material being dealt with.

Given that passengers are screened before boarding and that there hasn’t been a terrorist incident on a plane in years, the danger to the public posed by the occasional marshal missing a flight is negligible. The real issue here is that, if the system is managed so incompetently that even credentialed federal agents are being falsely caught in its snare, why should we have any confidence at all that it’s protecting us from terrorism? Isn’t it far, far more likely that virtually everyone tabbed as a terrorist suspect is a false positive? And that, since the existence of the list is common knowledge, an actual terrorist would travel using forged documents under an assumed name? Or that al Qaeda would use “fresh” people to carry out major plots?

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Terrorism, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. fredw says:

    It is inconvenient, but it makes us all safer. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

  2. James Joyner says:

    It is inconvenient, but it makes us all safer.

    Where’s the evidence for that?

    If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

    Fascism.

  3. sam says:

    Keith Olberman put it this way:

    [S]ome of the people who are supposed to be on the plane to stop the terrorists on the plane are getting mistaken for suspected terrorists and being kept from getting on the plane.

    The Brits have a nice way of referring to a situation like this: Cockup

  4. Rich Gardner says:

    How many air marshals share a name with a terrorist suspect? One would think, therefore, that this would be a reasonably easy problem to correct, no?

    Names like Edward Kennedy (Ted), the Senior Senator from Mass, also the name of a IRA member (has the IRA ever hijacked a plane? One possible attempt in 1980). The no-fly list is a feel-good measure that does little.