Tuesday, September 2, 2003

If you fly a lot and your name is not David Nelson, you should be thankful. People named David Nelson have been stopped mysteriously, yanked out of line and delayed for questioning at airports across the country.

Even the famous David Nelson of the popular ‘50s TV sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was stopped briefly at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

Apparently, there really is a terrorist suspect named David Nelson, the Portland Oregonian reported in May. So his name appears on the no-fly lists maintained by the Transportation Security Administration, a federal agency created in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Unfortunately, the TSA won’t confirm or deny this or verify any other name on their list. Nor do they have to reveal to those who names are on the list the reasons why their names are listed.

If you’ve got a reason to think you’re a “false positive,” as they say in the security screening trade, you can call the TSA’s ombudsman and hope for the best.

And if you think that’s bad, another proposal designed to replace the current no-fly lists sounds even trickier.

The new plan, called a Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System, or CAPPS II, would give a terrorist threat rating to every airline passenger, after we supply our names, addresses, dates of birth and phone numbers, and various databases are checked.

Passengers rated “red” would be detained by airport security.

“Yellow” travelers would face extra bag searches and pat-downs.

If you’re rated “green,” you’re good to go. Have a pleasant flight.

But, privacy advocates wonder about mission creep. Once government investigators have access to all that information about your personal business, who is to stop them from using it for purposes other than fighting terrorism?

So says Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, and she is not alone in her concerns.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, notes that 8 percent of air travelers could be classified as “yellow” under the new screening system, according to one transportation agency estimate. “You’re talking about yellow flags on 73 million people per year,” he said.

Both of these folks appeared last week at Washington’s National Press Club in an unusual joint news conference of leading liberals and conservatives brought together by shared concerns about growing Big-Brother government in the post-September 11 era.

Hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union, the panel also included Hilary Shelton, of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP; former Rep. Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican and House impeachment manager in 1998; and Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform.

Politics make strange bedfellows, the saying goes. So does the threat of excessive government nosiness.

Defenders of CAPPS II and other intrusive Bush administration counterterrorism measures like the PATRIOT Act say critics are falling victim to pre-September 11 “head-in-the-sand” thinking. That’s always a possibility.

But it’s also downright certain some government officials will take advantage of post-September 11 fear and anger to expand government powers and sacrifice personal privacy rights beyond what is necessary to fight terrorism.

And, once government people are granted powers, they don’t like to give them up after the crisis has passed.

So, what makes sense? For starters, Mr. Norquist suggests, any changes in the law, particularly regarding national security during a time of war or national crisis should be “term-limited” to the end of the crisis or to no more than two or three years, whichever comes first.

That was what Congress wisely did before it passed the sweeping and controversial PATRIOT Act in the wake of September 11, too soon for the members who voted on its more-than-300 pages to actually read it. Its “sunset” provisions will phase out the powers it grants to the government in 2005. Even so, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has suggested lifting those sunset provisions to make the hastily passed law permanent.

That would be a bad idea. Without such “sunset” provisions, there is no real accountability. On a matter as constitutionally sensitive as the PATRIOT Act, the attorney general should be required to report on how well his department is using its new powers before Congress lets them continue.

CAPPS II, which is still in committee in the Senate, needs “sunset” provisions, too. Its current form calls for permanent rules changes that would stay in effect long after the current “war on terrorism” ends, whether it ever officially ends or not.

Instead, those who would enforce CAPPS II should be required to go to Capitol Hill and report how well they are using their new powers before they would be allowed to keep them.

Then they might have an opportunity to face their critics. Some of them are named David Nelson.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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