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Unlikely Terrorists On No Fly List

This segment was originally broadcast on Oct. 8, 2006. It was updated on June 7, 2007.

Anyone who has passed through an airport in the last five years and has been pulled aside for extra screening knows that the government and the airlines keep a list of people they consider to be security threats. Every time you check in at the ticket counter your name is run through a computer to make sure you are not on something called the "No Fly List." It's part of a secret government database compiled after 9/11 to prevent suspected terrorists from getting on airplanes. As correspondent Steve Kroft reports, if your name is on the list or even similar to someone on the list, you can be detained for hours.

It began as a project of the highest priority. In 2003, President Bush directed the nation's intelligence agencies and the FBI to cooperate in creating a single watch list of suspected terrorists. A version of that list is given to the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration to prevent anyone considered a threat to civilian aviation from boarding a plane. The government won't divulge the criteria it uses in making up the list or even how many names are on it. But in the spring of 2006, working with a government watchdog group called the National Security News Service, 60 Minutes was able to obtain a copy of the No Fly List from someone in aviation security who wanted us to see what the bureaucracy had wrought.

The first surprise was the sheer size of it. In paper form it is more than 540 pages long. Before 9/11, the government's list of suspected terrorists banned from air travel totaled just 16 names; today there are 44,000. And that doesn't include people the government thinks should be pulled aside for additional security screening. There are another 75,000 people on that list.

With Joe Trento of the National Security News Service, 60 Minutes spent months going over the names on the No Fly List. While it is classified as sensitive, even members of Congress have been denied access to it. But that may have less to do with national security than avoiding embarrassment.

Asked what the quality is of the information that the TSA gets from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI, Trento says "Well, you know about our intelligence before we went to war in Iraq. You know what that was like. Not too good."

"This is much worse," Trento argues. "It's awful, it's bad. I mean you've got people who are dead on the list. You've got people you know are 80 years old on the list. It makes no sense."

60 Minutes certainly didn't expect to find the names of 14 of the 19 9/11 hijackers on the list since they have been dead for five years. 60 Minutes also found a number of high profile people who aren't likely to turn up at an airline ticket counter any time soon, like convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, now serving a life sentence in Colorado, and Saddam Hussein, who at the time was on trial for his life in Baghdad.

One person who was not surprised is former FBI agent Jack Cloonan, who was retiring from the bureau's al Qaeda task force just as the list was being put together.

"I did see Osama bin Laden on the list both with an "O" in the first name and a "U" in the second name. I was glad to see that. But, some of the other names that I see here, you know, I just have to scratch my head and say, 'My good, look what we've created,'" Cloonan says.

Intended to be a serious a serious intelligence document, Cloonan says the No Fly List soon became a "cover your rear end" document designed to protect bureaucrats and make the public feel more secure.

"I know in our particular case they basically did a massive data dump and said 'Ok anybody that's got a nexus to terrorism, let's make sure they get on the list,'" Cloonan explains. "And once that train left the station, or once that bullet went down range. There was no calling it back. And that is where we are."

The person who oversaw the project is Donna Bucella, who has run the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center since it began operations in 2003. Her group is responsible for evaluating the information submitted by the various intelligence agencies and actually compiling the list.

Asked if she is confident that the list is complete and accurate, Bucella says, "It's like painting a bridge. Once you finish one end, you gotta come back. So we endeavor to get the list as current and accurate and thorough as possible."

"We got a look at the No Fly List from March. And included on that list were 14 of the 19 September 11th hijackers. How do you explain that?" Kroft asks.

"Well, just because a person has died doesn't necessarily mean that their identity has died. People sometime carry the identities of people who have died," she says.

"What you are saying is that you have no information that this person is alive and poses a threat. It's just a name in the database," Kroft asks.

"In order fort the name to get in the data base there has to be information that they are a known suspected terrorist," Bucella says.

"So you are saying it's just a coincidence that there are 14 names in the computer that match the names of 9/11 terrorists. I mean, how do you account for that?" Kroft asks.

Bucella asked how recent this watch list was. When told it was from March, she said, "For some reason the agency might not necessarily want to have taken the name off the list. I can't explain that."

"Also on the list is Francois Genoud, who was a Nazi sympathizer and financier of Arab terrorism. Been dead for ten years," Kroft remarks.

"Well, when you said his - this is what we're doin' a quality review on our watch list," Bucella replies.

So far that quality review has missed a few other people who don't seem to pose a threat to aviation security, including international dignitaries like Nabih Berri, the head of the Lebanese parliament who recently met with Condoleezza Rice. The list also includes head of state Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia.

"I mean, do you think that the president of Bolivia's gonna highjack an airplane?" Kroft asks Bucella.

"I don't know if what you're talking about is true 'cause I haven't had an opportunity to take a look at it. And quite frankly, I'm not sure if that is accurate," she replies.

It would certainly seem to be. The Evo Morales on the No Fly List has three variations of his name listed along with a date of birth, all matching the president of Bolivia.

The names on the list are Evo Morales, Juan Evo Morales Aima and Evo Morales Ayma, all born on Oct. 26, 1959.

"We've been told by a number of different people that what happened under the tight deadlines was that the CIA and various agencies just took all the names that they had floating around for one reason or another and just dumped 'em into your computer," Kroft says.

"And that's why we are undergoing the record by record review," Bucella states.

Jack Cloonan says in the headlong rush to get a list, they forgot quality control. "And, we forgot what this was about. This is to prevent an Islamic terrorist who is associated with al Qaeda from getting on a plane. It lacks efficiency and, it makes us, look ineffective and ill equipped," he says.

It also has created enormous frustration and aggravation for thousands of innocent travelers who have the misfortune of sharing a name with someone on the list and some of the names are among the most common in America. Like Gary Smith, John Williams or Robert Johnson. 60 Minutes found 12 of them and brought them to New York for an interview.

In New York, Kroft spoke to the group, all of them named Robert Johnson; all said they have trouble getting on airplanes.

They don't look like a very dangerous group. There is a politician, a soccer coach, businessmen, even a member of the military. Yet they say they are pulled aside and interrogated, sometimes for hours until someone at the Transportation Security Administration decides they are not the Robert Johnson on the No Fly List. And they say it happens nearly every time they go to the airport.

"Oh, at least - at least 15 to 20 times. At least," one of the Robert Johnsons tells Kroft.

"Probably for close to 100 segments, every time I would go to get onto an airplane, I would have to go through the process," another says.

"I had my military ID and you know, I go on military bases all the time," Robert Johnson says. "So I can get on any base in the country, but I can't fly on a plane, because I am on the No Fly List."

The Robert Johnson meant to be on the No Fly List would seem to be the known alias of a 62-year-old black man who was convicted of plotting to bomb a Hindu temple and a movie theatre in Toronto. After serving 12 years, he was deported to Trinidad. But the airlines ticket agents don't have any of that information on their computer screens. They just have the name, not even a date of birth.

"There's gotta be some common sense in there. Somebody behind that desk has to say, 'This isn't the guy they're looking for.' Come on," one remarks.

Asked what is the worst part of the experience, one of the Johnsons tells Kroft, "The humiliation factor. And, I get calls on my cell phone from my coworkers saying, 'You gonna make the flight? You gonna make the flight?' And, I'm sitting here in a panic sweatin' and, you know, to an extent he's thinking like 'Or, am I traveling with a criminal here?'"

One of the Robert Johnsons was even strip-searched. "I had to take off my pants, I had to take off my sneakers, then I had to take off my socks. I was treated like a criminal."

And there is not much they can do about it. Right now their only recourse is to apply to get on another list of people who shouldn't be on the list. Donna Bucella of the Terrorist Screening Center says the inconvenience is regrettable, but it's a price society and anyone named Robert Johnson has to pay for security.

"Well, Robert Johnson will never get off the list," Bucella states.

And she acknowledges that the inconvenience won't go away. "Well, they're gonna be inconvenienced every time they try to go to the kiosk or try to do a curbside check-in because they do have the name of a person who's a known or suspected terrorist," she says.

But not all suspected terrorists are on the government's No Fly List. Joe Trento, while researching his book "Unsafe at Any Altitude" about airline security found what he thought was an obvious omission.

"Now Dawud Sallahuddin, real name David Belfield, lives in Tehran. He carried out the first assassination in Washington on behalf of Ayatollah Khomeini. Dress up as a mailman and shot somebody. He's allowed to fly," Trento says.

And neither are the original eleven British suspects recently charged with plotting to blow up ten commercial airliners with liquid explosives, even though they had reportedly been under surveillance for more than a year. A subject that Kip Hawley, the director of the Transportation Security Administration wanted to avoid.

Asked if the suspects were they on the list, Hawley tells Kroft, "I'm not going to get into all of the investigation or related to that investigation except to say that. With absolute confidence that anyone turned up in that investigation would not be allowed to actually get on an aircraft."

"The British say these people have been under investigation, surveillance for more than a year. But we managed to get a copy of the No Fly List for March, and none of these people were on the list," Kroft states.

"Well, I'm not going to confirm is and who isn't," Hawley replies.

What Kip Hawley wouldn't tell 60 Minutes is that some of the some of most dangerous terrorists never even end up on the No Fly List, because the intelligence agencies that supply the names don't want them circulated to airport employees in foreign countries for fear that they could end up in the hands of the terrorists.

Cathy Berrick, the Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the General Accounting Office told Kroft that the lists that the airlines get have been sanitized of the most sensitive information.

"They're not given all of the names for security reasons because the government doesn't want to have that information outside of the government," Berrick says.

"But if the point of the system is to keep dangerous people from getting on airplanes, why would you leave some of the potentially most dangerous people off the list?" Kroft asks.

"Yeah, it's a concern. And I think if you talk with the Department of Homeland Security they would agree with that," Berrick says.

The Transportation Security Administration has been trying to fix some of these problems for the past three years with a program called "Secure Flight." It would take the job of screening passengers on the No Fly List away from the airlines and place it in the hands of TSA employees with the necessary security clearances.

"Secure Flight" would also make available more information on suspected terrorists so screeners could tell the difference between 14-year-old Susan Becker and a Bader Meinhof terrorist who uses the same name as an alias but is really named Susanne Albrecht. And between Robert Johnson the convict and the Robert Johnsons 60 Minutes interviewed in New York.

But Cathy Berrick says things are not going well. "So it's three years later and the program still isn't fielded," she says.

She says an estimated $144 million has been spent on Secure Flight. Asked what taxpayers got for their money, Berrick says "nothing tangible yet."

"If you look at the perfect world we're not there. But if the fundamental thing is to be able to say to the people who fly: 'Is the government letting people on my plane who they know is a terrorist, who, who is a bad guy?' And the answer is 'No,'" Kip Hawley says. "All of these other issues -particularly on convenience for people with the same name as terrorists, that is unfortunately where we are. That's the down side of it the upside is that two million passengers are not flying with a terrorist."

After Kroft's story aired, Kip Hawley told Congress he would review all 44,000 names and cut the list by half. Meanwhile, the FBI announced that Bolivian President Evo Morales and Lebanon's Nahbi Berri are not on the current list. As for Donna Bucella, she has left the FBI for a job in the private sector.
Produced By Ira Rosen
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