Alot Travel > Themes
The No-Fly List is kind of an unwieldy beast, and not exactly the precise instrument it's supposed to be. While the TSA makes a distinction between people who are accidentally on the list and people who draw "false positives," the finer points of that difference are lost on the people who miss their flights and deal with harassment due to these false positives. Here are some of the craziest.
Syed Adam Ahmed loves hockey more than anything, and his parents frequently take him to see the Montreal Candiens play. However, Syed's name shows up on a "high profile" list, which means frequent airport delays, despite the fact that Syed is 6 years old and is clearly not threatening anyone. The family was also stopped in Mexico four years ago and had their passports confiscated for half an hour, when Syed was just an infant.
Sure, he wasn't the most responsible driver, but nobody would mistake Ted Kennedy for an actual terrorist. Nobody except the FBI, apparently. After being stopped in airports five times in one month, he learned that it was because someone using the name "T. Kennedy" was on a list of terrorist suspects. But as Kennedy himself pointed out, not many people have the authority to get answers the way he does, and not many people get to complain directly to a Senate Judiciary Committee when they get turned away for a flight.
Ted Stevens was the Alaskan Senator who horrified us all by incorrectly describing the internet as a "Series of Tubes" while being simultaneously being a person who makes important decisions regarding internet governance. Catherine Stevens was his wife. A hippie named Cat Stevens wrote a song called "Peace Train." Cat found himself on the no-fly list shortly after a change of name and religion, and suddenly, poor Catherine found herself getting pulled aside for extra questioning, too.
The TSA doesn't disclose how a name winds up on a list, and with a name like "Jim Robinson," good luck ever figuring out on your own. But this Jim Robinson is in a unique position—he was the head of the Department of Justice's criminal division under Clinton and has a top-secret security clearance. He is trusted with some of the country's most important secrets, but can't board an airplane without being harassed.
(image via American Constitution Society)
Mikey Hicks was born just a month before 9/11, when the number of people on the no-fly list ballooned from a couple dozen to thousands. Even in his infancy, his parents had a hard time flying with him, and he got his first security pat-down at the ripe old age of 2. Finally, when he was eight years old, his story broke in the New York Times as his parents grew frustrated with the increasingly aggressive searches and the fact that correcting a clerical error had taken seven years. Mikey's mother was a photojournalist who, herself, had clearance to board Air Force II, but apparently neither her good name nor her proximity to the Vice President were enough to assuage the problem.
In 2006, a former U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel was told he was on the list, despite having flown just a month before. He was stonewalled when he asked why, but a 60 Minutes report pulled together a whole horde of Robert Johnsons who had been pulled aside and interrogated in airports, presumably all because of one psycho Robert Johnson who was deported from Canada to Trinidad.
Mario Labbé was an executive at a Montreal-based record company who had to fly to the U.S. about once a month for business. And every time, for seven years, he was pulled aside for hours due to a security flag. Homeland Security apologized to him in 2004, but said there was no way to remove him. Finally, in desperation, he changed his name in 2008 to François Mario Labbé. All of his problems disappeared, which is great for him, but is anyone else concerned that adding a new first name is all it takes to fool the list? That's "Clark Kent's glasses" levels of stupid.
Now, François Genoud wasn't necessarily a great guy. In fact, he was kind of horrible. The Swiss financier gave plenty of his time and effort to the Nazis. That's not an exaggeration; that's not name-calling. The guy met Hitler and was the executor of Goebbels's will. He also funded a ton of Middle Eastern terrorism. So why shouldn't he be on the no-fly list? Well, at the time he was on the list, he had been dead for ten years.
The hot older brother from Ozzie and Harriet grew up to have a successful career as an actor and director. He also had trouble boarding planes, alongside untold legions of other people named David Nelson. Back when the problem first came up, it was being blamed on a first-generation computer program. It was an early example of no-fly list problems and the starting point for an early ACLU suit about the list.
In 2005, Stanford University doctoral student Rahinah Ibrahim was on her way to Hawai'i to speak about affordable housing. She was wheelchair-bound from a recent hysterectomy, which made it all the more baffling when she was handcuffed and detained. But Ibrahim's problems were just getting started. The ensuing lawsuit saw the government cite "state secrets privilege" to get the case thrown out of court again and again until finally that "state secret" came out in 2014—Ibrahim was on the list because an FBI agent accidentally checked the wrong box on a form. Good thing her lawyer was working pro bono, because the seven-year court case took up $3.8 million worth of her time.