Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tiny Terror

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James Robinson is a frequent flier. Although he's a native of California, he has family members on the East Coast whom he visits on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, air travel isn't as easy for James as it used to be.

Three years ago, when trying to do the convenient curbside check-in, James was directed to the ticket counter. There he was quite surprised to learn that he would not be allowed to do curbside check-in or get a boarding pass online or use any of the services airlines provide these days to try to streamline the travel experience.

He was even more surprised to discover the reason for this: His name appeared on the "terrorist watch list," maintained by the Transportation Safety Administration to single out potential suicide bombers and terrorists for special scrutiny at the airport.

James was particularly surprised to find himself on the list because he was 5 years old at the time. Three years later, his family reports, they still get flagged every time they take little James to the airport to go east to visit Grandma.

Now, I'll confess, I've been in movies, supermarkets, and yes, even airplanes with toddlers and small children whom I'd cheerfully see shipped off to Gitmo. And I suppose it's possible that little James is some sort of madrassa-trained midget al-Qaida sleeper agent with a pound of C-4 in his teddy bear.

When asked by a CNN reporter if he's a terrorist, James gives the somewhat shifty reply, "I don't know." This, admittedly, is the sort of answer a confused 8-year-old might give. But it's also the exact sort of thing a Hamas suicide bomber might say! We should probably subject the little guy to "enhanced interrogation" just to make sure. I'll set up the waterboard.

At least he's not alone. There's another James Robinson, this one an adult, who's also flagged as a potential terrorist. This James Robinson is a retired Air National Guard brigadier general. He's also a commercial pilot for a major airline, who's authorized to carry a gun onto a plane and even into the cockpit if he can just get cleared at the ticket counter.

Yes, you're reading this right. One of the pilots is a suspected terrorist. Apparently someone is worried that he might get control of an airplane.

Yet another James Robinson who's been pulled aside is a former U.S. attorney and a retired law school dean who holds a high-level security clearance from the U.S government, at least one part of it. But another part of that government says nope, pull him out and screen him again.

Or at least that's what's implied. The TSA refuses either to confirm or deny whether anyone is on the watch list, and in fact has threatened to fine airline employees who tell people why they're being subjected to scrutiny.

TSA employees are, however, apparently permitted to provide forms for people who are stopped and who deny terrorist connections to fill out, asking that they be removed from the watch list. That's how Little James Robinson's family found out their tot was on the list.

Think about that for a moment. They're not allowed to tell you you're on the list, but they are allowed to hand you the forms to get off of it.

Not that it's going to do you much good. James Robinson the former U.S. attorney says he filled out all the forms and sent them in with copies of his passport, his driver's license, his voter registration card, and anything else he could think of. That was in 2005. So far, he says, he's heard nothing. But see, they wouldn't be able to let him know if he's off the list, because it's a crime to let him know he was ever on it.

This is the sort of thing that's simply beyond parody.

As for Little James, his mom, Denise, told CNN that they've come up with their own solutions. They either tip the skycaps heavily or just book him through as "J. Pierce Robinson." Likewise, Jim the Pilot just books himself as "Jim Robinson" or "J.K. Robinson" and breezes through.

Recently, political correspondent Drew Griffin found himself on the watch list after writing articles critical of the TSA and the Federal Air Marshals Service. He's wondered aloud and in print if this was done in retaliation for his criticism. Others, such as wingnut bogeyman Sen. Edward Kennedy and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, have wondered the same thing after they encountered problems.

But I've got to tell you, after reading stories about an 8-year-old and a pilot ending up on the list, I'm perfectly willing to accept sheer random bureaucratic stupidity as an explanation.

Don't you feel safer now?


Indiana Joe said...

Stupidity isn't an adequate explanation. If it was stupidity, the errors would be random.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We get stopped a lot, especially when I hear them pronounce Abbott as Abbotti or something similar, which happens a lot in the Detroit area.

Bill Cameron said...

We can't be the land of the free if we aren't first the home of the brave.

Rae said...

This is the same kind of story I used to hear about the Soviet Union. Kinda scary.