When I recently learned that a CNN reporter was put on the federal "No-Fly List" shortly after his investigation of the Transportation Security Administration aired, my first reaction was, "Welcome to the Club!"
If it is of any consolation to CNN Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin, he stands in good company with the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy and other congressmen, singer Cat Stevens, ACLU attorneys, peace activists, and even Nelson Mandela. But this is of cold comfort to those of us who have had the dubious distinction of being on the secret terrorist watch list.
In March 2006, the "No-Fly List" contained 44,000 names. This month, according to a tally maintained by the ACLU based upon the government's own reported numbers, it hit one million.
Supposedly, you are only listed if you "present a specific known or suspected threat to aviation." But an alarming number of innocent travelers appear to be listed for suspicious reasons that have nothing to do with safety.
Some mistakes are chalked up to "false positive passengers" who have the misfortune of sharing names with genuine terrorists. However, many of those listed pose no security risk, but instead have spoken out against government policy, giving this program the ugly appearance that it is being used for political purposes.
I started having trouble flying after blowing the whistle in the case of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. As the Justice Department ethics attorney in that case, I inadvertently learned that my e-mail records had been requested by the court. When I tried to comply, I found that the e-mails, which concluded that the FBI committed an ethics violation during its interrogation of Lindh, had been purged from the file. I managed to recover them, gave them to my boss and resigned. I also took home copies in case they "disappeared" again. Eventually, in accordance with the Whistleblower Protection Act, I turned them over to the media when it became evident that the Justice Department withheld them from the court.
Many might think that undergoing secondary security screening is a minor hassle. But to passengers who go through this ritual humiliation, it means not only being unable to use the Internet, kiosk, or curbside check-in, it means missed flights and checked baggage that is always hand-searched, if it arrives at all.
There is no way to find out why you are on the list. Nor is there a surefire way to get your name removed. There have been numerous "redress" procedures over the years. In 2004, I complained, as directed by the government, to the TSA Ombudsman. I never heard back.
More recently, I was instructed to file a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security "Travel Redress Inquiry Program" - which entails providing my unlisted home telephone number, my weight, my personal e-mail address and my voter registration card, which reveals my party affiliation. Moreover, the TSA Web site explicitly states that this information may be shared for reasons not related to the redress process. The last thing I want to do is reveal my private information to a government agency that is unfairly targeting me.
Defenders of the current security regime say this is all theoretical because the government neither confirms nor denies that you are on the list at all. But when you are searched every time you fly, (in my case, more than a dozen times in a row), random chance cannot explain the happenstance.
Security is compromised when limited government resources are wasted on listing individuals based on their dissent, not their danger. Terrorist watch lists should protect, not punish.
Jesselyn Radack is Homeland Security Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, www.whistleblower.org.