Flying frequently between Altanta and Newark, there was a time when I was selected for secondary screening often at the Newark airport but rarely at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. But that was in the few months after September 2001. Nowadays, I am almost never singled out for secondary screening. I didn’t mind the extra attention, but would have liked to see some evidence of its benefits to security. The news coverage of the watch lists, however, tells a different story.
The first story from Washington Post tells us about Congressman John Lewis.
For more than a year and a half, Rep. John Lewis has endured lengthy delays at the ticket counter, intense questioning by airline employees and suspicious glances by fellow passengers.
Airport security guards have combed through his luggage as he stood in front of his constituents at the Atlanta airport. An airline employee has paged him on board a flight for further questioning, he said. On at least 35 occasions, the Georgia Democrat said, he was treated like a criminal because his name, like that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), appeared on a government terrorist watch list.
While Kennedy managed to get security officials to end his airlines hassles after three weeks of trying, Lewis had no luck for months. Then he found his own way around the security mess.
Lewis added his middle initial to his name when making his airline reservations. The computer system apparently didn’t flag tickets for “Rep. John R. Lewis,” and the hassles suddenly ended.
“The ‘R’ is the only thing that has been saving me,” Lewis said from Atlanta yesterday.
Amazing that a congressman couldn’t get off the government watch list. Being a Pakistani, that rings alarm bells for me. In Pakistan, we had somethign called an Exit Control List. People on that list were not allowed to get out of Pakistan. It usually includes names of criminals as well as politicians. Until a few years ago, when you arrived at the airport, some law enforcement guy would check your name in the list which was maintained in a notebook. That was quite a hassle.
More amazing is the fact that avoiding attention from airport security is as easy as using or not using your middle initial. Of what use is such a list?
Senator Edward Kennedy was also on the watch list.
Between March 1 and April 6, airline agents tried to block Mr. Kennedy from boarding airplanes on five occasions because his name resembled an alias used by a suspected terrorist who had been barred from flying on airlines in the United States, his aides and government officials said.
Instead of acknowledging the craggy-faced, silver-haired septuagenarian as the Congressional leader whose face has flashed across the nation’s television sets for decades, the airline agents acted as if they had stumbled across a fanatic who might blow up an American airplane. Mr. Kennedy said they refused to give him his ticket.
“He said, ‘We can’t give it to you,’ ” Mr. Kennedy said, describing an encounter with an airline agent to the rapt audience. ” ‘You can’t buy a ticket to go on the airline to Boston.’ I said, ‘Well, why not?’ He said, ‘We can’t tell you.’ “
“Tried to get on a plane back to Washington,” Mr. Kennedy continued. ” ‘You can’t get on the plane.’ I went up to the desk and said, ‘I’ve been getting on this plane, you know, for 42 years. Why can’t I get on the plane?’ “
[…] In Mr. Kennedy’s case, airline supervisors ultimately overruled the ticket agents in each instance and allowed him to board the plane. But it took several weeks for the Department of Homeland Security to clear the matter up altogether, the senator’s aides said.
Just days after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called Mr. Kennedy in early April to apologize and to promise that the problems would be resolved, another airline agent tried to stop Mr. Kennedy from boarding a plane yet again. The alias used by the suspected terrorist on the watch list was Edward Kennedy, said David Smith, a spokesman for the senator.
I guess it is always good to know the Director of Homeland Security. Some things never change. Access to high officials is always useful.
It seems that “John Lewis” and “Edward Kennedy” are names or aliases terrorists have used. Let us see how common these names are. “John” is the first name of 3.271% of the male population of the US while “Edward” is that of another 0.779%. Only about 0.226% of the people in the US have the last name “Lewis” while the figure for “Kennedy” is 0.067%.
Let us assume that first and last names frequencies are independent of each other (not really true). Then the frequency of someone named “John Lewis” would be 0.03271 × 0.00226 = 0.0000739246 or 0.00739246%. This means there are probably more than 20,000 people named “John Lewis” in the US. A similar analysis for “Edward Kennedy” gives us about 1,500 people.
Were all those 20,000 John Lewis’ being searched at the airport? Is such a system even feasible?
The question regarding all these security measures is whether they help make us safe or are they just for make-believe.