Why the "No-Fly List" Doesn't Work -- or Catch Terrorists

Last Updated May 13, 2010 10:37 AM EDT

When Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad easily hopped aboard an Emirates Airlines flight to Dubai at John F. Kennedy International Airport last week, it seemed to again highlight why the federal no-fly list doesn't work. (Remember, it also didn't seem to work for the Christmas Day bomber, either.) A large part of the reason the federal list doesn't work is that it drafts airline employees as frontline security for the country instead of trained federal agents. Why are we having overworked airline employees with little training, except with difficult passengers, making security decisions?

Apparently the federal government is finally getting the picture. The Senate is working to implement a new procedure that would reduce the time for airlines required to update their no-fly lists from two hours to 30 minutes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also said that a plan from the Transportation Security Administration to take over the no-fly list checks from airlines should also be fast-tracked.

While Feinstein went on to say that Shahzad was some kind of sleeper cell, homegrown threat, the reality is that Shahzad allegedly had ties to the Pakstani Taliban, a group that still hasn't made the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. They didn't make the list, and Shahzad didn't make the no-fly list because of it.

(In a similar incident on Christmas 2009, suspected Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab paid cash for a one-way ticket from Lagos to Detroit via Amsterdam and boarded with no checked luggage. His own father called US officials to let them know that his son was a threat and possibly engaging in some plot against the United States. Abdulmutallab's name made it to a list of suspicious people, but never to the TSA watch list or the no-fly list.)

There are also reports that the FBI actually told the DHS to keep mum on the Shahzad update to the no-fly list because it was afraid there would be a press leak. Turns out that it was kept so quiet that the news didn't even reach Emirates Airlines, where Shahzad bought his ticket and boarded the plane. (Agents apprehended Shahzad after the plane was heading to the runway when they received a last-minute passenger manifest.)

So which is it, an institutional incompetence or lazy government bureaucrats not doing their jobs? (Or the fact that for more than a year, the TSA still doesn't have a leader that could change its current climate of lowered expectations.)

But another question persists. What if an Emirates Airlines employee had learned of the no-fly update and declined to issue Shahzad a boarding pass? Would any terror suspect wait to find out why? Or, even less likely, wait around for the federal agents to arrive?

As one airline employee said about the procedure:

The USA does not have customs and border control for departing passengers on international flights. This job is left to the airlines and their employees. The ticket counters at our airports are public places outside security. After "spending seven years and half a billion dollars," why do we continue to put our national security in the hands of average citizens?

Photo: Drewski2112
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