Is Uncle Sam’s ‘No Fly List’ a net to supress
17 September 2004
It seems that my Turin travelogue, “I Got Trapped in
the Secret ‘No Fly List’ of the Transportation Security
Administration” (posted on September 1) had hit a nerve among quite
a number of Eelam Tamils and non-Tamils. I very much appreciate the
phone calls and mails of sympathy and advice I received from
Few years ago, actor Paul Newman was asked in a magazine interview
about what he considered as his pinnacle of professional
achievement. The guy who inimitably played the ‘Cool Hand Luke’ role
delivered his cool and mocking answer; ‘To be number 19th in Nixon’s
enemy list’ of 1971. Taking a cue from my movie idol Paul Newman –
whose liberal political ideals I subscribe to -, now I can also brag
that ‘To be in Uncle Sam’s No Fly List’ is a badge of some sort.
Lately, this No Fly List has become a headliner, that it has even
gained the NFL abbreviation, to share the spotlight with the
national football league, the original recipient of the NFL
I did not expect that one reader by the user name ‘Kari Sinhalavan’
(a Tamil of course) had submitted my Turin travelogue to a net chat
board, AboutMy Talk.com (www.aboutmytalk.com) on September 3rd with
a tagged question ‘No Fly List’ – is a net to suppress voice?’.
Within 24 hours, this posting had elicited responses from six
correspondents with user names Matt, Fly Guy, EAC, Bud a Bing, Lee
Bell and Frank F.Matthews. I provide below excerpts from 15
responses. I have corrected the originals only for spelling and
deleted the irrelevant vituperative asides. Few of the responses
address the details presented in my Turin travelogue directly, while
others ignore these and address generally the problems and
consequences of NFL-initiated politics. All the same, I found these
responses more than of ephemeral interest.
Response 1: Matt, September 3, 2004
I admit to not knowing the answer to this question,
but are foreign airlines somehow required to use the no-fly list? If
JAL [Japan Air Lines] doesn't use it then I assume the other
airlines are using it voluntarily. In which case Mr. Kantha's
complaint should be solely with the airline. It sounds like Al
Italia went as far as to notify the local police of his presence.
Strange story, at least he kept the America bashing to a minimum.
Also, is there an international no-fly list maintained by Interpol,
or similar agency. Or is the only no fly list maintained by the TSA?
Obviously the whole idea of a no-fly list needs some work to protect
the innocent. But its a no-win situation for law enforcement and
airlines. If a known terrorist got on a plane and tried to blow it
up and we didn't have a no-fly list, the same people that complain
about the no-fly list would complain that the airline let a known
terrorist on the plane.
Response 2: Fly Guy, September 3, 2004
It's a no-win situation for the people on the list.
The airlines don't care if there's a list - or not. And a
professional terrorist wouldn't arrange to have a set of fake ID
when the time came?
I bet Lloyds of London (and the world-wide insurance syndicate) is
behind the no-fly-list. They've probably made it mandatory for there
be such a list as a condition for them to continue to provide
liability insurance for the worlds’ air lines. I've just heard that
CSIS (the Canadian version of FBI/CIA/NSA) will create or maintain a
Canadian version of the no-fly-list for domestic flights within
Canada (the reason being that domestic flights require less
documentation, an indication that perhaps passport scanning does
currently trigger some sort of terrorist recognition system which
doesn't seem to kick in with other types of ID).
CSIS is the same bunch of clowns that pretty much knew that there
would be a bomb on Air India flight 182 in 1985 and are now covering
up for their incompentence. You can bet that if someone they were
watching wanted to get on a plane (and was on the No Fly list) that
they'd let them on the plane anyway. That's the problem with
‘intelligence’ agencies like FBI and CSIS. They don't want to blow
their cover so they let people that they're watching go about their
business, even if that business includes getting on a plane.
Has any ‘terrorist’ anywhere been caught by the no fly list? Or are
the airlines and ticket agents of the world doing the work of the
local police in looking for known felons, thieves, criminals,
activists, etc, in the name of ‘terrorism’?
Response 3: EAC, September 3, 2004
The ones who own many 'foreign' airlines also owned
U.S.A.'s airlines; basically many airlines around the world are
actually owned by the same group of people. It's a global economy
you know. It should be noted that many Singaporeans feels like that
Singapore Airlines isn't really an airline company that is really
Singaporean. The other airlines are using it[ the No Fly List]
voluntarily.Voluntary as in that's what their superiors told them to
do. Of course, their superiors have their own superiors.
Mr. Kantha's complaint should be to Singapore Airlines, AND the US
Transportation Security Administation, AND the airline of Alitalia,
AND the Italian police force.
The official line is that the 'no-fly' is to prevent innocent
causalties. In reality, it is used to bug people and make people
upset. That will defame airlines, countries, and so on. Even if
there's a list, what make you so sure that the person that will
cause harm would be in the list?
Besides, with the amount of security an airport (even pre-9/11), the
only way to blow up an airplane is for you to be involved in the
government. A no-fly list is useless anyway, because the people who
will cause harm and are involved in a network, are usually
intentionally allowed to board the plane and caused harm. Why?
Because they all work together. The airlines, the criminals, the
airport officials, cooperate with each other.
Response 4: Bud A Bing, September 4, 2004
Actually, the Airlines have the final say. The TSA
warning is flashed on the screen, and the airlines go from there. As
a ‘Gold Member’ on the no-fly list, I only have a problem with
Delta, AA & America West. The rest cancel the warning, and I'm on my
Response 5: Kari Sinhalavan, September 4, 2004
It is US that control TSA list. How come Professor
Kantha's name went into that list? Is it because of US or Sri Lankan
government using dirty tricks to put his name on the TSA list?? I
know Professor Kantha worked in US as well as Japan. At the same
time he is very vocal about Sri Lankan government genocide against
Tamils. I just want to know who maintain that list and who else have
influence to force US government to enter somebody's name on false
accusation. If his name is entered in TSA list then how come he is a
good citizen while he was in US? [G.W.] Bush is painting everybody's
[face] with the same brush. It is like accusing Canada for letting
9/11 attackers but all of them came to US straight from obtaining
visa from US embassy. If you can't do the job don't blame others and
put others in hardship like Professor Kantha. You are not making
Response 6: Matt, September 4, 2004
You had me until the Bush bashing, which taints your
argument. From what you're saying, it is the Sri Lankan government
that's probably responsible for putting him [Kantha] on the list.
And yet you don't place any blame on Alitalia (for reporting him to
the local police), Singapore Airlines (for not letting him board),
the local police in Italy for arresting him without cause, or the
SriLankan government for abusing the list for political reasons (if
that's what happened).
I'm not defending the way the system currently works. As I said
before, I think it needs fixing. But, in general, I think it's a
good idea to keep track of when terrorists and suspected terrorists
get on a plane.
Response 7: Fly Guy, September 4, 2004
We have an administration in Washington that
broadcasts everything and anything that can be construed as a
victory on the War On Terror. The sting a year or so ago against
some guy (Russian) who was going to barter some arms deal (dirty
bomb components?). The very minute the sting went down we were
hearing about it on the evening news. The predictor drone that took
out some bad guys somewhere a year or so ago - we heard about it
(shouldn't have - that's top secret technology; but no, the White
House needs the press).
As someone had said, it's not the person that boards a plane, but
what they bring with them. So no, I wouldn't be upset if a
‘terrorist’ got on a plane. In contrast, I'm mildly upset (and over
time, increasingly so) that the average cabin full of passengers
will not know how to deal with the next hijacking incident because
(1) There is nothing new in the pre-take-off announcements or
messages that tell people what is expected of them in the case of a
threat to the plane caused by a fellow passenger. (2) The cowards in
the Whitehouse and FAA have never said in public what airline
passengers should do if a hijacking should ever happen again.
The single largest asset a cabin full of passengers has to insure
their own safety and that of the plane since 9/11 is their
collective ability to know and understand how to react during a
hijacking situation. One week after 9/11 I'm sure they all knew. One
year? One decade? You tell me. And I'll tell you something else. If
your name was on the no fly list, I'd bet you wouldn't be singing
the same praise for the list as you are now.
Two more things:
(1) Why does the FBI post their ‘most wanted’ list
in public? If they do that, why can't the no fly list be posted in
public? Are those people on the NFL ‘really wanted’ on arrest
warrents, or do we just want to make their life hell and relagate
them to taking Amtrak or Greyhound instead of United [Airlines]? How
do you feel that the government can keep such a list and compel
private corporations to discriminate against those people (who could
be US Citizens) without legal recourse? What's next - a ‘no car-rent
list’ ? A ‘no credit-card list’? A ‘no mortgage list’?
2) Why not go further? If the people on the NFL are so bad, and must
be aprehended at all cost, then why not force the credit-card
companies to divulge the names and addresses of anyone with a
similar name, and alert the FBI whenever those people make a
transaction. Those people could be hunted down in a second if the
government really wanted those people. If the government really
wanted to get those NFL people then their names and pictures would
be posted in every airport, post office and bus/train station.
That’s what you do when you want to capture someone. You tell people
Response 8: Lee Bell, September 4, 2004
[Does] anybody know what his [Kantha’s] name happens
to be on such a list?
[Does] anybody know whether someone with the same name is or is not
[Does] anybody know whether the writer of the posted document is or
is not a terrorist?
[Does] anybody know that the report that was posted actually
[Does] anybody think that it might be nice to have the answers to
these questions before blaming anybody?
[An interrupting note from the protagonist Kantha: I should respond
promptly to correspondent Lee Bell’s 4th question. Due to the
masking provided in the internet world and the fictional stories
circulating in the net as facts, this correspondent has valid doubts
about the incident which happened to me on August 21 at the Nagoya
airport. I had provided a named source [Mr.Louis Tay, the station
chief of Singapore Air Lines of the Nagoya airport] in my travelogue
and thus my story can be independently verified. About the agony I
faced at the Rome airport on August 24th night (between 8:00 and
9:30pm), anyone who is keen can verify with the Leonardo da Vinci
Response 9: Lee Bell, September 4, 2004
You think may be the US cares enough about this guy
[Kantha] to add his name to the
list of thousands we already have to keep an eye…?
There was no accusation [from Kantha]. You don't know that there is
no good reason for the name on the list. There may, in fact, be more
than one person with the same name somewhere in the world. You don't
even know that the guy [Kantha] on whom the posting was about
doesn't deserve to be on the list. [If] you want to know about the
list, file a freedom of information request with the government.
The people that financed and carried out the events of 9-11-01 were
good residents until they killed a load of US citizens. Your buddy
[Kantha] isn't a US citizen. He may have been a resident.
Response 10: Lee Bell, September 4, 2004
Here's a clue. The US isn't allowed to check
thoroughly. If Sri Lanka says put them on the list, they go on the
list unless there's reason to believe the name does not belong
there. Note, it's a name, not a person, that's on the list. If you
don't like that, talk to Sri Lanka. Don't blame the US for something
you don't even know the source of.
Response 11: Fly Guy, September 4, 2004
If Joe Hijack's name is on the list, and the real
Joe Hijack steps up to the ticket counter and is told he can't fly
(and minutes later he is hustled away by authorities) then have we
just stopped a hijacking? Does it matter? I don't think so. If the
above were to happen, then, like I said, the Bush administration
would be spreading the news that a ‘wanted’ terrorist was captured
due to their skillful leadership in this post 9/11 era. The fact
that this hasn't happened tells me that either the NFL is designed
to placate the insurance industry regarding airline liability, or
the NFL is a smoke screen, designed to be well known to the flying
public (and potential bad guys) and keep bad guys away from
airplanes (rather than catch them at the ticket counter). Like gate
security screening was once largely a smoke screen (to make most
people, including bad guys, believe that since carry-on screening
and metal detector arches exist then they must be effective).
If this is the reason, then that would explain why the list is never
published - because it ‘doesn't’ contain the names of any real
terrorists, but it does contain just enough names to trip up a few
people who we find out about through the media. And to kick it up a
notch, they make it so that even Ted Kennedy gets tripped up by the
list. The intent here is to send a message to ‘bad guys’ that the
list is very tough and unbiased. The Kennedy incident guarantees
that the NFL gets broad media exposure so most potential bad guys
now know it exists.
The question is not whether I'd like to have a terrorist sitting
next to me. The question is whether having a NFL in it's current
(arbitrary, hideous, in-flexible) form is either effective or a good
trade-off in security vs inconveinence for those who are falsely
identified. I put the odds at vanishingly close to zero that the
list actually works at intercepting would-be hijackers. The logic
that to stop using the list means that on the very next flight there
will be a hijacker sitting beside me is absurd, and panders to the
same sort of fear-making machine that the Bush administration has
used to blanket the US since 9/11.
Response 12: Frank F. Matthews, September 4, 2004
It's not the screening so much as the incompetent
way in which it is being done. In this day of IT, the concept that
they cannot manage to identify regular hits which have been cleared
is ludicrous. Bothering an individual more that once or twice is
unacceptable. Let them protect us but require that they be
Response 13: Matt, September 4, 2004
I agree completely. I like the general idea of having a no-fly list,
but they need to fix it so innocent people aren't unfairly harassed.
Response 14: Fly Guy, September 4, 2004
The real value of the NFL is to repel would-be
hijackers and add one more layer of complexity for them to think
about when (or if) they plan to commit some act against or on a
plane. That's in addition to baggage screening and the now
ultra-sensitive gate screening. If a would-be hijacker knows there
is such a thing as a NFL, and it makes him/them think twice about
their ability to pull it off - to the point he/they abort the
attempt - then the list has accomplished it's job - and it did so
without actually being functional and/or knowing the real or fake
names of the would-be hijacker(s).
The NFL doesn't have to work, or be legit, or have a
‘customer-service’ mechanism and staff behind it. It just has to be
known to exist by the public at large. Throw in a few big fish that
get tripped up by it (like Ted Kennedy) to insure the existence of
the list gets wide media exposure.
It's a smoke screen - like gate screening was prior to 9/11. Now why
it has to complicate the lives of so many flyers with false
positives, that's clearly not necessary unless the powers that be
are not yet convinced that there is wide public knowledge of the NFL
and they need more media stories about the list before they alter
the list to reduce the false positives.
It's a common tactic to make the enemy believe you have some
capability when you really don't. Like the urban legends that there
are anti-aircraft batteries on the roof of government buildings like
the White House or Pentagon, or like the NSA has the ability to
intercept, decode, filter, and understand all manner of public and
private electronic communications. The no fly list is another
example of such a false capability.
Response 15: Fly Guy, September 5, 2004
I'd be for a no fly list if:
1) The number of entries or names on the list is publically
2) The nature or reason why each name is on the list is publically
3) The number of names that belong to US citizens is publically
4) If any name on the NFL belongs to a US citizen, then by law the
gov't (or agency maintaining the NFL) must make a continuous and
competent effort to find or contact that person and (a) inform them
they are on the list and tell them why, and (b) give them legal
recourse to challenge their inclusion on the list.
5) A bullet-proof mechanism exists to eliminate repeat
false-positives, preferrably by entering specific additional
information at the gate or at the ticket counter when confronted
with the false-positive person such that that person will never
trigger the NFL again.
Items (1), (2) and (3) do not require that the names themselves be
publically divulged. Tell me why a no-fly-list with any or all of
the above characteristics would degrade the performance or
effectiveness of the current list.
Among the 15 responses provided above, one
correspondent with the user name Fly Guy presents an opinion in
Responses 2 and 11, that “NFL is designed to placate the insurance
industry regarding airline liability”. There may be some food for
thought on this point. In Response 2, Fly Guy has asserted “I bet
Lloyds of London (and the world-wide insurance syndicate) is behind
the no-fly-list. They've probably made it mandatory for there be
such a list as a condition for them to continue to provide liability
insurance for the worlds’ air lines”. Could there be a hint here why
the Japan Air Lines is not enforcing the No Fly List – as of now?
Could it be that, the Japan Air Lines – as typical of many things
Japanese – wouldn’t be that big of a customer of the Lloyds of
London, like the Singapore Air Lines? To prevent unwanted seepage,
Japanese would prefer to have their insurance business within their
own Japanese insurance company circle.