Many airline passengers with common names—including actor David Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet fame—have been scratching their heads trying to figure out why they raised red flags on the federal "no fly list" distributed to airports around the country. Maybe they'll take consolation in knowing that the government doesn't seem to be sure either.
In December 2002, California anti-war activists Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon were stopped while attempting to board a flight out of San Francisco. They subsequently filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents on the Transportation Security Administration's list of suspicious characters and, almost a year after the initial incident, the FBI released a series of not-entirely-reassuring memos.
At least one official with the FBI's Civil Aviation Security Program, for instance, "was not able to identify the criteria, for one, as to what makes one a 'known' vs. a 'possible' threat to aviation, and other issues re interviewing passengers on the basis of the list." Another complained: "I have read many e-mails back and forth on the topic of dissemination and nothing seems clear. I assume the US military can have a copy of the list." Despite the confusion, the documents indicated that the bureau had not decided whether to add the list to the National Crime Information Center database, which police officers query during routine traffic stops millions of times each day.
It's not just the criteria for getting on the list that are uncertain. The FBI's documents included no hint as to how someone mistakenly put on can get himself removed.