With school almost out and summer on the way, you might be gearing up to fly somewhere fun and exotic. But a growing number of your neighbors are being left behind because they say the government put their name on its terror watch list by mistake.
If there’s one thing Jim Harris knows for sure, he’s not a terrorist. “I am not a terrorist. Never have been, never will be. No terrorist.”
He’s laughing now. But this New York native says it isn’t funny how hard it is for him to visit his daughter, a Fox 5 producer, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. About three years ago, Harris discovered he could no longer check in for a flight online. Instead, he now must arrive hours ahead so the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration can clear him to fly.
“Harris is a very popular name. You'll look in the phone book and you'll find pages and pages and pages of Harrises", Harris points out.
He thinks the TSA confused him with another Jim Harris. He wrote the agency to find out if his name was on one of the terror watch lists.
"I got a letter back that said we've completed the investigation and you may or may not be on the list and you may or may not continue to have this problem."
Alexander Shehab discovered he has the same problem when his family tried to go on vacation in Puerto Rico.
“I’m thinking now they think I’m a terrorist.” The 12-year-old almost didn’t make the trip when TSA agents questioned him for hours at the airport.
“I was confused because I didn't know what was going to happen, what was going to happen to me."
His mother says Alexander is now interrogated by the TSA every time he tries to fly.
“As parents we're frustrated because we've gone through every channel we possibly can at this point to get it reversed or to fix it and we haven't had any luck", says Tracy Shehab.
Mike German was an FBI agent for 16 years and now works for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This is an unfair process that puts people on the list without any sort of due process and no way to effectively get yourself off the list." He estimates there are now about 1.1 million names on the government’s various watch lists. “It is a bit of security-theater. The government wants to say it’s doing something, look at this list that we have."
He points to two recent government reports that found, “the vast majority of travelers identified as a possible match to these lists are ultimately determined not to be the individuals of interest..." Yet, “the FBI failed to remove the subject in a timely manner" 72% of the time.
Meanwhile, German says known terrorists, like last year’s Christmas bomber, never make it on the list.
“Its amazing to me we have a list where a person shows up at the airport to buy a ticket and is told you can't buy a ticket because we think you're a terrorist. If the government really thought that person was a terrorist, you'd think they would want you to call them to come and arrest this person as opposed to just preventing them from flying", says German.
The TSA’s Lauren Gaches says the problem stems from the way people are matched to the various watch lists. Until now, it was up to the different airlines to identify potential matches whichever way they saw fit. But she says the TSA will take over the process by the end of this year.
“Once it’s fully implemented, we expect more than 99% of misidentifications will no longer occur", says Gaches.
For those people who continue to be misidentified Gaches says the TSA will provide them a unique number, which she calls a redress number.
“When passengers book their travel online, they'll be prompted for some additional pieces of information. This includes their full name… their date of birth and their gender. In addition, if a traveler who is already applied for redress and they have a redress number; they'll be prompted for that as well.”
Jim Harris says he got a second letter which did assign him a number. “Almost like a PIN, that I'm supposed to use when I try to fly," he says.
But he remains skeptical and says for the all the time and trouble it now takes to fly, he would just rather drive.
The TSA tells FOX 5 that children are not on the watch lists. The agency says it’s most often a case of mistaken identity and airlines should never stop a stop from boarding a flight. The TSA says it hopes to permanently fix that problem when the government takes over the identification process later this year.
To read the TSA’s “Myth Busters” about the Watch List click here: