Friday, May 2, 2008

Sen. Russ Feingold wants the Bush administration to explain why federal air marshals were prevented from boarding some flights because their names matched those on the terrorist no-fly list, and whether the problem has been solved.

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 admittance even after they present their credentials.

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 matching names on the no-fly list will work with airline officials in the future, which was first reported yesterday by The Washington Times.

“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.”

In addition, Mr. Feingold asked when the problem first came to the attention of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) and other federal agencies, and how many flights continued without the security force.

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.”

Last 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.

Brian Hale, FBI spokesman, declined to comment on the letter saying “we have a process when we receive a letter and we will be responding to the letter through the appropriate channels.”

Chad Kolton, spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center, said the watchlist has enhanced counterterrorism efforts and that they will continue to “work very closely with our partners at TSA and the airline industry to ensure it is used in screening all passengers as effectively as possible.”

Greg Alter, spokesman for the FAMS, an agency of the Homeland Security Department, said in an e-mail that they have no record of flights being missed because of the no-fly list.

“While it’s conceivable that at some point in the agency’s history a mission may have been rescheduled as a result of misidentification; to date, a search of all available records has not revealed a single instance of an air marshal mission having been missed as a result of a watch-list issue,” Mr. Alter said.

He added that the security directive issued April 9 is intended to improve the efficiency of air marshal protocols and should alleviate any misconceptions regarding the effect of marshal watch-list misidentifications.

However, air marshals have said they did not report reasons for missed flights, and that it was treated as a “situation,” not an “incident.”

“If you missed a flight, the [Missions Operation Center] would say don’t worry about it, we’ll put you on another flight,” the second air marshal said.

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