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James Moore

James Moore

Posted: January 4, 2006 03:23 PM

Branded


There are times in which it is easy to be suspicious. We can get to that feeling fairly quickly if we even pay slight attention. I've been trying to get over this odd emotion for at least a year. I can't find any rationale for letting it go, though I want desperately not to have these thoughts.

This week last year I was preparing for a trip to Ohio to conduct interviews and research for a new book I was writing. My airline tickets had been purchased on line and the morning of departure I went to the Internet to print out my boarding pass. I got a message that said, "Not Allowed." Several subsequent tries failed. Surely, I thought, it's just a glitch within the airline's servers or software.

I made it a point to arrive very early at the airport. My reservation was confirmed before I left home. I went to the electronic kiosk and punched in my confirmation number to print out my boarding pass and luggage tags. Another error message appeared, "Please see agent."

I did. She took my Texas driver's license and punched in the relevant information to her computer system.

"I'm sorry, sir," she said. "There seems to be a problem. You've been placed on the No Fly Watch List."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm afraid there isn't much more that I can tell you," she explained. "It's just the list that's maintained by TSA to check for people who might have terrorist connections."

"You're serious?"

"I'm afraid so, sir. Here's an 800 number in Washington. You need to call them before I can clear you for the flight."

Exasperated, I dialed the number from my cell, determined to clear up what I was sure was a clerical error. The woman who answered offered me no more information than the ticket agent.

"Mam, I'd like to know how I got on the No Fly Watch List."

"I'm not really authorized to tell you that, sir," she explained after taking down my social security and Texas driver's license numbers.

"What can you tell me?"

"All I can tell you is that there is something in your background that in some way is similar to someone they are looking for."

"Well, let me get this straight then," I said. "Our government is looking for a guy who may have a mundane Anglo name, who pays tens of thousands of dollars every year in taxes, has never been arrested or even late on a credit card payment, is more uninteresting than a Tupperware party, and cries after the first two notes of the national anthem? We need to find this guy. He sounds dangerous to me."

"I'm sorry, sir, I've already told you everything I can."

"Oh, wait," I said. "One last thing: this guy they are looking for? Did he write books critical of the Bush administration, too?"

I have been on the No Fly Watch List for a year. I will never be told the official reason. No one ever is. You cannot sue to get the information. Nothing I have done has moved me any closer to getting off the list. There were 35,000 Americans in that database last year. According to a European government that screens hundreds of thousands of American travelers every year, the list they have been given to work from has since grown to 80,000.

My friends tell me it is just more government incompetence. A tech buddy said there's no one in government smart enough to write a search algorithm that will find actual terrorists, so they end up with authors of books criticizing the Bush White House. I have no idea what's going on.

I suppose I should think of it as a minor sacrifice to help keep my country safe. Not being able to print out boarding passes in advance and having to get to the airport three hours early for every flight is hardly an imposition compared to what Americans are enduring in Iraq. I can force myself to get used to all that extra attention from the guy with the wand whenever I walk through the electronic arches. I'm just doing my patriotic duty.

Of course, there's always the chance that the No Fly Watch List is one of many enemies lists maintained by the Bush White House. If that's the case, I am happy to be on that list. I am in good company with people who expect more out of their president and their government.

Hell, maybe I'll start thinking of it as an honor roll.

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