Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sen. Russ Feingold is asking Bush administration officials to explain how federal air marshals were prevented from boarding flights because their names were matched ones on the terrorist no-fly list, and whether the problem has been solved.

Federal air marshals familiar with the incidents say the problem has persisted for years because some names are either exact matches or similar, prompting airline boarding agents to refuse boarding.

Mr. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, today sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III asking for a copy of a classified security directive that outlines how air marshals matched on the no-fly list will work with airline officials in the future, first reported Wednesday by The Washington Times.

The list is maintained by the Justice Department’s Terrorist Screening Center and contains half a million names of suspected terrorists. Air Marshal officials will not say how many marshals’ names are similar or match that of suspected terrorists, or how many times the system has tagged air marshals.

“I cannot begin to imagine the frustration of a federal air marshal who has been assigned to board an airplane to protect its passengers and crew, but who is prevented from doing so by an airline that erroneously believes the individual is on the no-fly list,” Mr. Feingold said.

“As I am sure you will agree, this is a bad outcome in every respect,” Mr. Feingold said. “It provides less security to the flying public, and it highlights continuing problems with the terrorist screening database and its redress process,” Mr. Feingold said.

“If a federal air marshal cannot resolve a mistaken watch list match in time to board a flight, it is hard to imagine a member of the public being able to do so.”

In addition, Mr. Feingold asked when the problem first came to the attention of the Federal Air Marshal Service and other federal agencies and how many flights continued without air marshals present.

Air marshals told The Washington Times this week that 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,” according to a memo issued April 23 from the assistant director of the office of flight operations.

The memo outlining the problem said “FAMs may encounter situations where this SD has not yet reached every air carrier customer service representative (CSR).”

“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.

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