- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

It’s not a good time to fly for men named David Nelson.

For months, David Nelsons have been pulled off airplanes, searched, questioned by the FBI and sometimes searched again in an apparent dragnet for a terrorist by that name.

David Nelson of McLean says he has been harassed even when his wife and children have accompanied him to the airport.

“The very first time it happened to me, they just told me to wait,” he said. “About five minutes later, you start to see the cops coming out of everywhere. There were dogs and everything.”

Mr. Nelson said he had sent an e-mail to the Federal Aviation Administration nearly six months ago asking why he continues to be separated from others at the airport and questioned. It has happened about 15 times in the past several years. He received a response about two weeks ago, telling him that he needed to call officials with more information about himself.

“It happens every single time,” he said. “In the beginning, it was a lot worse than it has been lately.”

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials admit the security system is not perfect, but they hope to improve it with a new system that will assign a mathematical score to each airline passenger based on the risk they might represent.

Details of the scoring system will be included in a Federal Register as soon as this week, TSA spokesman Brian Turmail said.

The score will be derived from a secret algorithm. Passengers whose scores rate above a certain threshold will be singled out for more thorough searches. Others will be allowed to board planes unimpeded.

“We’re not going to give the actual formula out,” Mr. Turmail said.

The computer scoring is part of the TSA’s CAPPS II, which stands for Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System.

It is a refinement of CAPPS I, which uses more rudimentary data to identify suspect travelers. The information includes ticket purchases with cash, and one-way tickets.

CAPPS I is the system that has ensnared any David Nelson who has tried to board a commercial airplane.

David Nelson of the District has been taken aside every time he has traveled by air since September 11, except once — even though he is a Capitol Hill staffer whose tickets often are bought by the government. Sometimes he is checked multiple times.

His questioning sessions with airport security personnel have reduced from about 40 minutes right after September 11 to about 10 minutes in the past couple months.

“In no case at all had my congressional staff ID helped,” he said.

Several airlines have countered the problem by tying his Social Security number to his frequent-flier information, allowing airline employees to rule him out as the David Nelson sought by the FBI.

The stepped-up security often prevents him from checking in electronically, and forces him to see an attendant first and then wait for clearance from a supervisor.

When David Nelson, a telecommunications executive from Fulton, Md., went to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport last year for a Southwest Airlines flight, he was questioned and searched thrice — when he checked in, after he went through the metal detector and when handed his boarding pass. It took him about an hour extra to get on the plane.

“I don’t think that’s too random,” he said. “They were asking, ‘Where [are you] going? Did [you] have a return ticket? Do you have business? Who is your business with?’”

Mr. Nelson wishes there was an easier way for people whose names spark caution to check in.

“Ultimately, this will all be rendered moot when TSA implements the CAPPS II program,” Mr. Turmail said.

The mathematical scores used for CAPPS II would assign a color code to the boarding pass of each passenger.

A green code would allow passengers to move through routine airport security checks. A yellow code mandates “secondary screening,” such as waving a hand wand over passengers’ bodies to detect metal objects. A red one means that the passenger is forbidden from flying.

The score would be derived at least partly from financial records, such as credit-card transactions, bank withdrawals and home mortgage payments. The names, birth dates, home addresses and phone numbers of passengers also would be stored in government computer files.

“The system remains on track and on schedule and could be in place as early as this New Year,” Mr. Turmail said.

The TSA plans to use as the source for part of its database private companies that monitor financial information for customers. Other records will be taken from law-enforcement agencies, such as the FBI’s “no fly list” that includes the names of terrorism suspects forbidden from flying on U.S. airlines.

Privacy advocates say CAPPS II creates too much government intrusion.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to block use of CAPPS II. The ACLU says the system discriminates against low-income persons with poor credit ratings. The TSA is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

The TSA’s security efforts, nonetheless, are receiving support even from groups that sometimes protest measures by airlines that inconvenience or intrude upon passengers.

“I’m not crazy about it, but until someone can come up with a better idea, we have to go with this,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington advocacy group for airline passengers. “As opposed to hijackers and terrorists getting on our airplanes, we’ll take an imperfect system.”

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