This will be a rare post written in the first person, because it is personal. It’s the story of my stint on the Terrorist Watch List, one of several secret lists kept by government agencies, including the TSA. As is well known, no one good, decent, honest, competent, moral, ethical or intelligent has ever been employed at TSA in any capacity whatsoever. But they have the power to add you to this list, which is not entirely life-altering, but is an embuggerance of the next order below that.
I’m not alone in being on one of these lists for bogus reasons. Senator Ted Kennedy, whose name was Edward M. Kennedy, was put on the list because an IRA terrorist had used the name Theodore Kennedy as an alias once. (The terrorist in question was ultimately pardoned in a peace deal, and the actual terrorist used to fly with no problems). Kennedy was able to resolve his problem, but only because he was a powerful, senior Senator. Dr. Patrick S. Hackett, a Knoxville veterinarian, has been on the no-fly list for over ten years, not because of his Taliban beard, but because he also shares the name of some IRA crumb.
Hackett found out he was on the no-fly list in 2004 when he accompanied his son, who was attending the Air Force Academy, to McGhee Tyson Airport. He asked for a pass to allow him to accompany his son to the gate.
“They said I couldn’t go to the gate because I was on their list. They gave me a number to call,” he said.
Hackett said he filled out, signed and mailed forms to the TSA to try to straighten the situation out. About a year and a half later, he received a letter from the TSA offering him a “letter of duress” that he could present whenever he was questioned.
When Hackett subsequently used the letter to travel, gate attendants would mark his boarding pass. He would then be subjected to thorough and sometimes invasive searches before being allowed to board.
TSA officials won’t discuss Hackett’s travel status.
“It’s a secret list,” said a TSA customer services representative, who wouldn’t give his name.
via Right name, wrong man: Knoxville veterinarian can’t get off no-fly list.
Concept fail: “TSA customer services representative.” They’re kidding, right? You can almost hear the sneer in that TSA bum’s voice, can’t you? Remember, no one good, decent, honest, competent, moral, ethical or intelligent has ever been employed at TSA in any capacity whatsoever. And having met every level of that organization from Director down to gloved groin-grabbing groper, I can say that with authority.
It gets better for Hackett: his terrorist namesake is out of prison after having done his time forty years ago, but is trivially easy to distinguish from the Tennessee dog doctor:
The difference should be easy to spot. The terrorist is missing an arm and a leg — blown off when a bomb exploded prematurely — while the Knoxville veterinarian has all his limbs intact.
That’s “easy to spot” for you and me. Not for the TSA, who have a median IQ so low they couldn’t be executed for murder in this country, which nobly refrains from putting down the retarded. Hey, maybe Ernst Stavro Blofeld — he’s on the list, with me an’ Ted and Dr Hackett, even though Blofeld’s a fictional character and Ted’s dead — could magically regrow naughty-Hackett’s limbs like a lizard’s, for some nefarious purpose.
If, you know, Blofeld wasn’t a fictional character.
We know how Hackett, Ted, and Blofeld got on the list: the TSA is staffed entirely by drooling imbeciles. So, how did Hognose get on the list?
Turns out, they’re drooling, vindictive imbeciles.
It began with a day job writing aviation news for a trade-press web publication. That put me in a press conference at the National Business Aviation Association somewhere. (Tampa? Anaheim? Dunno. It was a plane and a hotel and a convention center…). The press conference was a rare attempt to put then-TSA head, Admiral Stone, in front of the press.
Most of the press (remember, this would have been mostly aviation trade press) were fairly deferential. I wasn’t, although I referred to him (as he made clear was his preference) as “Admiral Stone” and “sir”.
I asked Stone a couple of hard questions. I can’t remember the questions now, but I seem to recall one was about the low quality of his staff, and the other was about whether or not the whole agency was “eyewash” — or what Bruce Schneier was starting to call “security theater,” given that by midday on 11 September 2001, passengers would never again would allow a hijacking. I do remember his reaction to the questions:
- He praised the excellence of his people, so he was either lying or out of touch (although you can’t rule out some combination of the two, can you?).
- He was offended by the suggestion that his security theater was security theater.
It was only after the convention that I realized just how offended he was. That is, when I went to get back on the mailing tube to go home.
You would have thought that Osama His Ownself had schlepped his carry-ons into the security line. I was pulled aside; subjected to a pat-down that approached “rub-down,” they should have billed me for a genital massage; had my two carry-ons dumped out and spread out, as one TSA “officer” after another pawed through my stuff. They wrote down and took pictures of the books I was reading; they counted my socks. They started up my computer and did some searches for porn, and seemed disappointed when they didn’t find any. And then they sat me on a chair and told me to wait.
About a half-hour after that, exactly 10 minutes before my plane’s departure time, they told my I could go. I swept the piles of all my stuff off the table into my two carry-on bags, and ran like OJ (in the famous Hertz ad, not from the po-po) through the terminal. They were actually closing the door when I arrived, and they swung it open.
“What held you up?” a stew asked.
“Yeah, they do that to us sometimes, too.”
Later, I discovered it wasn’t a one-off. Admiral Stone’s vengeance lasted for two or three years. I was able to determine that I had been placed, not on the no-fly list (or I couldn’t have flown at all), but on the Terrorist Watch List, a secret list of, apparently, journalists who pissed off Admiral Stone. When you are on the TWL, or whatever its real name is — the name, too is a secret, unlike, say, NSA code-word programs, or the personally identifiable information of cleared personnel — they do let you fly, but they do what they can to hassle you out of doing it, and subject you to heightened scrutiny. Your moves are also reported, inter alia, to the FBI and to regional interagency Counter Terrorist Task Forces.
The hilarious side of it was that during all of this, I worked, both in my Guard SF gig and in my contract jobs, on anti- and counter-terrorist stuff all the time. I maintained a security clearance, access to Government systems, and an active pilot’s license.
I think the only flights I took during this period that I didn’t fly myself were courtesy of the USAF, Army helicopters, and some guys who had some Mil Mi-8s and didn’t feel like answering questions. Fortunately, when it was time for my medevac, the California Army National Guard HH-60 crew didn’t check the Watch List, or I might still be out there in the Hindu Kush.
Back in the states, various friends of mine worked in CT task forces here and there, and I’d get calls:
“Nose, I see you’re in town!”
“Yeah, I’m here for Heli-Expo. How’s it going? And how’d you know I was coming?”
“Hey, it’s all great. We got an alert on you at the Task Force. Are you playing for the other team, bro? What’s up with that?”
I’d tell my Admiral Stone story. The cop or agent would laugh. He would explain that they, too, had no idea how someone gets on the Watch List, but most of their “hits” were false positives. Like me and Ted Kennedy, and I’m not too sure about Kennedy. If we both had time, I’d meet my friend and his buddies from the TF in a cop bar somewhere, and over beers we’d share dumb-ass TSA stories. (And the task force officers and agents also had stories that made it clear that, however wrong the TSA is as a response to terrorism, the terrorism itself was real).
And then, next trip, the whole rigamarole would happen again.
For something like two or three years I drove ridiculous distances, took Amtrak, or flew a rented Piper, rumbling through the lower altitudes at 110 knots; I dreaded the transcontinental or international trips that required the human mailing tube, and the extra dose of moronic hassle that came my way from the TSA. Every time.
And then, some time long after Stone left, I showed up at an airport expecting “the usual,” and this happened: nothing. I was off the list, as secretly as I’d gone on; or at least, I was off the part of it that gets one extra scrutiny from the gropers in nitrile gloves.
But we’re sure you felt 100% safer, during the period when I was on the Terrorist Watch List. Because Security Theater isn’t about the security, it’s about the feels. And vis-a-vis the TSA, the public has a bad case of Battered Wife Syndrome.