False identifications based on a terrorist no-fly list have for years prevented some federal air marshals from boarding flights they are assigned to protect, according to officials with the agency, which is finally taking steps to address the problem.
Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) familiar with the situation say the mix-ups, in which marshals are mistaken for terrorism suspects who share the same names, have gone on for years — just as they have for thousands of members of the traveling public.
One air marshal said it has been "a major problem, where guys are denied boarding by the airline."
"In some cases, planes have departed without any coverage because the airline employees were adamant they would not fly," said the air marshal, who asked not to be named because the job requires anonymity. "I've seen guys actually being denied boarding."
A second air marshal said one agent "has been getting harassed for six years because his exact name is on the no-fly list."
Earlier this month, the agency issued a new Security Directive (SD) "to address those situations where air carriers deny FAMs boarding based on 'no-fly list' names matches." The memo was issued April 23 from the assistant director of the office of flight operations.
Gregory Alter, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, said the new directive "mitigates any misidentification concerns by empowering airlines to quickly clear an air marshal's status after positively identifying their law-enforcement status."
"In rare instances, air marshals, like all travelers, are occasionally misidentified as being on a watch because of name or personal identifier similarities to individuals actually on the lists," Mr. Alter said.
The air marshal service does not release how many agents are employed and declined to specify the number of agents whose names are similar to those of wanted or suspected terrorists.
The new procedures are classified as "sensitive security information" and address both domestic and international check-in procedures.
"FAMs may encounter situations where this SD has not yet reached every air carrier customer service representative (CSR)," the memo said.
"If a FAM is denied boarding based on 'no fly list' issues, FAMS should request to speak to an air carrier supervisory CSR. If the air carrier continues to deny the FAM a boarding pass, FAMS should contact [their supervisor] as soon as possible for assistance," the memo said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this week that one major air carrier reports roughly 9,000 false positive hits on the watch list every day.
The Terrorist Screening Center announced April 10 it will automatically review nearly 500,000 names on its watch list that are frequently matched during airport screenings and other law-enforcement encounters with the general public, and remove those names that don't belong to actual suspects.
Additionally, Mr. Chertoff announced Monday that each airline can now create a system of limited biographical data including a passenger's date of birth to clear up watch list misidentifications.
"Hassles due to misidentification and the resulting necessity to stand in line to check in at the ticket counter is consistently among the deepest and most valid complaints of the traveling public," Mr. Chertoff said.
"Thousands of passengers are inconvenienced each day, and this change should provide a way to eliminate the vast majority of these situations. This is good for travelers and for security, because as we make the checkpoint environment calmer, it becomes easier to spot individuals with hostile intent," Mr. Chertoff said.