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August 4, 2003

“Have you heard about this one?” asked correspondent Neil Gaiman about the enormity detailed in this Independent story. I had, on various blogs. Ho hum, another civil liberties outrage, another day in the echo chamber. Temperamentally inclined to zig where others zag, I wasn’t planning to link to it.

I was wrong. “This is fascism,” notes Nathan Newman. “Not the late stages but the early stages, where if it’s not stopped, it grows into a cancer.” He’s right.

Libertarians: you’re next. Naderites, get your shoes on. Everybody happy now? [12:18 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on "Have you heard about this one?":

Thomas Nephew ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 01:26 AM:

I think the issue is still mainly one of accountability so far; I agree 100% that there should be clarity about how people get on and off the lists used by the TSA to screen airline passengers.

An Indymedia reprint of a Wall Street Journal article suggests that some of the hassling may have to do with name-similarity issues and old-fashioned software (SOUNDEX, Census 1900s stuff) used to suggest similarities between suspect names and those in line at the ticket counter. Also, if any of a group purchasing a ticket has a false positive, the whole group gets pulled aside. It may be that Gordon or Adams are neither "no-fly" nor "selectee", but "too similar in name+attributes".

This could be, in part, yet another case of weighing the cost of false positives against that of false negatives, in this case when trying to screen out bad guys from planes.

Looking at the ACLUNC press release, I see little to disprove the WSJ hypothesis. Or to prove it. As I said, though, accountability is important to me too, and the burden should be on the TSA to demonstrate it's not abusing the no-fly lists for political purposes, and provide ways for people to appeal/clarify their status to avoid repeated hassling.

I've written about the Gordon/Adams case a few times, most recently here. That doesn't make me an expert or right, of course.

While the TSA docs are heavily redacted, there is a great deal of mention (p26-forward) of the false positive" issue, and of a proposal for "trusted traveller" status. Haven't read far enough to see what became of that.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 02:15 AM:

It's the 'no pressing need' to keep track of false positives that scares me. The arrogance, power, and 'we don't care; we don't have to' that it hints at are really terrifying.


Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 06:38 AM:

I want them to explain why they think the screening lists will work at all, and then to explain why they think they're a good use of resources.

The excuse that something is necessary for security when it's really a tool for social control is not an excuse that can safely be tolerated in the political process.

Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 10:00 AM:

An idea: reverse engineer the no-fly list.

If several hundred people have come forward, it should be possible to analyze what the determining criteria are. Soundex comparison, name on a list (a lot of David Nelsons have been delayed, but not AFAIK any David Nielsens), demographic profile, et cetera.

Then, of course, someone could game the system.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 11:11 AM:

>I think the issue is still mainly one of accountability so far

Well, yes, I should think so, or rather the total lack of it!

Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 11:14 AM:

I think it is more than obvious that the 9/11 hijackers and their accomplices made test flights to find the weaknesses in the system. Future hijackers are going to make the same test flights. If one of them gets pulled and questioned every time he goes through security, then he is going to use a different identity, one that doesn't get him pulled.

Good lord, this is basic basic basic stuff. This is painfully obvious even to Maxwell Smart. Every Bubba Sixpack with a warrant for failure to pay child support knows not to use his real name. The only thing this will catch is a terrorist stupid enough to use a name on that list.

Which means that the only purpose for this list is to monitor and harrass domestic political opposition.

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 11:45 AM:

The whole idea of having lists of names of people who will receive extra scrutiny is pretty stupid. I could understand having a list of the 10 (or even 500) "most wanted" terrorists, who will be arrested if they're ever foolish enough to fly under their known aliases. Forcing them to come up with new identities ever few years is probably a good nuisance tactic.

I don't understand the point of having thousands of names of people who probably aren't even terrorists. When the time comes for a terrorist cel to make the big move they've been planning for several years, they're going to have brand new identities that they have verified aren't on any lists. Or, they'll just assume (through some form of identity theft or forgery) the identities of "trusted travellers" if our leaders are dumb enough to create such a status.

Thomas Nephew ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 11:52 AM:

Maxwell Smart Sixpack here: Well, presumably if an alleged terrorist gets pulled it's for using a known/suspected alias that he/she doesn't realize is known. Once apprehended, he/she hopefully won't get another chance to try.

Re repeats, it might be worthwhile to know if [all/many/only a few] suspected political cases have suffered repeat instances of hassling. (I realize at least one person mentioned in the piece has.) The TSA docs seemed to portray an agency at least concerned enough to dislike the bad publicity involved, if admittedly not one willing to share very much of its conclusions with the rest of us.

Again, I agree that safeguards need to be in place, and understand the status quo isn't acceptable. But I guess I'm not sure yet that this is an open-and-shut case of nascent fascism. By which I thought political repression was implied, not lack of adequate accountability.

The lists may seem stupid and easy to evade, but I think it would be even more stupid not to have them.

Raven ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 12:00 PM:

Regarding the question of determining the
criteria on the list:

Two MIT students looked at the issue of "reverse-engineering" and gaming the criteria used for profiling for additional security screening. They conclude that random tests would seem to be a better choice of resources.


I do not remember where I read about this first (some blog), so I can't give credit.

Raven ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 12:03 PM:


...would seem to be a better choice and a better use of the limited resources.

Keith ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 12:08 PM:

Lists are one tool but the best one we have is well trained,
observant security personel, the kind that can tell the difference between a suspected Al Quida opperative and an elderly nun.

So far it seems we've staffed security checkpoints with a beurocracy of Mr. Magoos who are using this list as our primary safety net. This is either the result of bumbling ineficiency (it is the government, after all), calous disregard (it is Bush's government, after all) or outright fascism (Gutan Tag, Herr Ashcroft). I don't like any of these options and would prefer some actual effort put into making us safe, not just a half assed effort to provide the illusion of safety.

Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 12:22 PM:

Patrick, you and Nathan Newman are mistaken: this practice (however appalling and reprehensible it is) is not fascism. We've all been reading Orcinus, right?

It is the use of state police power to interfere with the political opponents of the people who run the state. Without a doubt. But how different is it from Richard Nixon's "enemies list"? Or the actions of the governments of (say) Tiberius Caesar, Franz Josef I, Henry VII, or Josef Stalin, none of whom can be said to be fascists?

Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 12:37 PM:

Ah. Thanks, Raven. Googling gives me this:


"Carnival Booth". Yes, that's appropriate.

But I am still wondering if the list and screening algorithm have been reverse-engineered in practice (by non-terrorists). It seems like something that would be worthwhile from a civil libertarian viewpoint.


Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 01:01 PM:

Tiberius Caesar, Franz Josef I, Henry VII, or Josef Stalin, none of whom can be said to be fascists?

I think it is the tactics of political oppression best represented by 20th century fascists that has resulted in the use of the term fascist. Stalin may not have believed in corporatism as an economic and political model, but he certainly made ample use of fascist tactics to suppress opposition. Fascism's definition has become more broad that you would allow it.

Well, presumably if an alleged terrorist gets pulled it's for using a known/suspected alias that he/she doesn't realize is known. Once apprehended, he/she hopefully won't get another chance to try.

Apprehended being the key phrase. If everyone on that list was a target for arrest, we wouldn't be talking about it. The vast majority of the people on that list aren't. They are merely targets of suspicion, and as such, the potential terrorist going through security who is repeatedly searched and detained and released will continue to go through security until he finds an alias that won't get him harrassed.

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 01:07 PM:

Jeff, exactly! That's why I said I thought having a list of _actual_ terrorist aliases was a good idea. If someone's on that list, arrest them. If it's a case of mistaken identity, clear it up and make the entry on the list more specific somehow. But don't just keep hassling people on the list whether they're terrorists or not.

It's like using sub-clinical doses of antibiotics. You keep giving the pathogen relatively mild exposure to your countermeasure, and that just reinforces their immunity, until the countermeaser has lost any effectiveness it might have had. In the case of terrorists, they're using concious effort to develop immunity, rather than natural selection, but the end result is the same.

James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 01:45 PM:

A couple of comments. First, if a "trusted traveller" status is created, it will be exploited by a terrorist with a clean background, good funding, and a couple of years lead time to make himself a trusted traveller.

For example: How tough would it be for a gent to fly to the coast every Monday, stay two or three days, and return? And how tough would it be to get a listing in the phonebook in the name of his company, where if you call the number between nine and five any working day, a bright young lady will pick up and say, "Hello, International Exports! How may I help you?.... Why yes, Mr. Underhill is an employee here. He's one of out top salesmen. Yes, he does fly to the coast every Monday, stay two or three days, and return....."

This isn't outside the range of talents or funding of any number of groups.

Next, resources that are spent on repeated strip-searches of constitutional lawyers aren't being used on searches for terrorists in places where terrorists are likely to be.

As far as the CAPPS system, in place since 1999 ... sure didn't stop 9/11, did it?

On the lists: I don't think it's completely sinister. I think that it's an objective, quantifiable criterion, easily taught to neophytes. You can base promotions on how well they enforce the lists. They're easy to supervise, easy to manage, easy to use.

What might actually work would be hiring 20-year veteran street cops to hang out in airports and look for people who are "acting funny." The civil liberties effects of that would also be horrendous.

Not that building higher walls will fix the problem. One thing to remember with terrorists: they choose when, they choose where, they choose how. You can't guard everything all the time against all possible threats.

Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 03:17 PM:

Not that building higher walls will fix the problem.

Indeed. I can't recall it working at any time in history. Not for any duration. What was it Patton said about fixed fortifications? I think it applies to metaphorical fortifications as well. How can you keep "them" out when you cannot possibly begin to guess who "they" are?

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 03:37 PM:

What was it Patton said about fixed fortifications?

Monuments to the stupidity of man (at least, that's the quote used in the movie).

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 04:07 PM:

The ACLU's press release on this matter, with a link to their full report.

Alan, "fascism" is characterized by particular politics (right-wing reactionary, including bellicose nationalism, an integration of the power of weatlh and the state, and harsh religious rigidity), as well as particular policies. I think the current Republican leadership fits the description pretty well. This differs from Nixon's enemies list in that it is not personal, but national policy.

Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 08:19 PM:

It also differs from Nixon's enemies list in that their ability to travel wasn't being curtailed.

I think this story suggests it is something other than an accident of name similarities, by the way.

Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2003, 10:00 PM:

Speaking as someone who was pulled and searched repeatedly when traveling to Tallahassee last summer for a job interview (didn't matter if I was first, last, or in the middle: I was the only one pulled and searched), I just wonder about what unthinking bastard shares my name. Why, oh why, do I get the suspicion that I'd have been perfectly safe if I'd used the name "Rusty Shackelford"?

Barry ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 07:07 AM:

In terms of gaming the system, I'd have the members of the terrorist group each travel separately, several times. Those who got searched/hassled would be dropped from the 'A-team' (they might not be told this).

As has been pointed out, alias' are quite doable. The biggest hurdle might be getting that first credit card (to establish a credit history, if the system uses that, and because the CAPPS system allegedly flags cash purchases).

Anne ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 03:49 PM:

Getting credit cards probably won't be a difficulty; just talk to your friendly neighborhood identity thief.

Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 04:19 PM:

Barry, it'd be pretty trivial to get a credit card in someone else's name, if you could intercept their mail.

Getting a credit card in a completely fictional name would be a little harder, but I suspect not impossible. I know there used to be companies that would give some sort of pre-paid credit cards to people trying to restore their credit ratings. I suspect they still exist. If someone was listed as a horrible credit risk, they could send one of these companies a thousand dollars, and the company would send them a card with a thousand dollar credit limit. By using the card and not running up the balance, the individual could re-establish their credit worthiness. Once their credit rating was up to some acceptable level, the company would return the deposit.

I suspect that you could find such a company that wouldn't mind that their new customer had _no_ credit history.

I'm sure professional criminals would know much more about how to forge identities than I can guess.

Tuxedo Slack ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 07:35 PM:

Edgar Harris' good twin writes:

I just wonder about what unthinking bastard shares my name.

And the cutesy-poo lobe in my brain says "Might it be Tom Riddle?"

Ken MacLeod ::: (view all by) ::: August 05, 2003, 08:40 PM:

This ain't the thin entering wedge of fascism. It's something a lot scarier.

What it reminds me of is an aspect of the so-called 'revisionist' interpretation of the Great Purge: there is no need to postulate ill-will when you have a security apparatus, and a populace, who really believed they were up against a vast, shadowy terrorist conspiracy. Once confessions beaten out of people count as evidence, the evidence piles up fast. And, because of the small world phenomenon, lots of people - especially people in entirely legal and peaceful opposition groups - are only a few names away from somebody who really is a conspirator or terrorist or terrorist sympathiser.

Trivially, I'm four handshakes from Hitler and four dinners from Stalin, by pure chance via non-political relatives. I don't know how many bull sessions I am from somebody who can be plausibly linked to Al-Queda, but I suspect the number is small.

We're all one dirty bomb away from mass arrests.

sara ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2003, 12:35 AM:

The TSA's apparent bureaucratic bungling and spectacle of computerized idiocy and officious ineptitude is, I suppose, actually engineered by someone Higher Up, intended to frighten ordinary Americans into not attending antiwar protests or even signing petitions for fear they will not be able to fly on their next summer vacation or fly to their aged mother92s hospice bed.

I don92t actually think that the neocons have set out to become fascists and impose Fascism on America. That would require too great diabolicality on their part (movie villains) or too great doublethink (even their heads would explode).

I think that in the repression of civil liberties (as opposed to foreign policy) they are merely executing definitely shady and criminal but ad hoc and unsystematic strategy. Nevertheless, maybe you can achieve fascism inadvertently, a Third Reich acquired in a fit of absence of mind.

Barry ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2003, 11:24 AM:

Sara, another way of thinking about them is that they had great dreams, and were given a golden opportunity to achive them. I would say 'by accident', but the alignment of forces which helps them is no accident (e.g., if 9/11 were on 9/11/03, Clinton wouldn't have gotten the pass that Bush did - the right would have blamed it on him).

Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2003, 11:31 AM:

(I'm assuming you mean 9/11/93...?) Anyway, I thought that at least part of the right do blame 9/11 on Clinton - on the basis that it was obviously his foreign policy that led to Al-Qaeda "thinking they could attack the US and get away with it". (I can say many things about Clinton, but his track record of bombing other countries as punishment is about as bad as most US Presidents.)

Jeff Crook ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2003, 03:39 PM:

As for identity theft, let me add my own squeeze of conspiracy juice. Not long after 9/11, a state employee was discovered providing drivers licenses illegally. Her accomplices were all suspiciously middle eastern. The day before she was to appear in court, she swerved off a country road and slammed into a telephone pole, the car exploded, and she was burned to a crisp.

Witnesses to the accident said the interior of the car was on fire BEFORE it swerved off the road.

Coroner's conclusion - suicide. Apparently, she performed self-immolation with gasoline while driving. I suppose it makes it much more difficult to provide believable bullshit when those pesky witnesses talk to the media before you can properly intimidate them.

And to top it off, I don't think charges were ever brought against the men because of lack of evidence. What happened to them afterward, I don't know. Deported, I assume.

Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2003, 01:36 AM:

As for identity theft and credit cards, it normally comes to light because the thief runs up bills and doesn't pay them. If a terrorist took out a credit card in someone else's names and paid the bill on time, it will go undetected 99% of the time. Only if that person happened to scrutinize their credit report would it be noticed. There's also a slight change the multiple address on the credit report would be detected, but many people move often so that's not a good flag.

Jonathan Laden ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 02:03 AM:

Heh. Good flag or no, it could be/is used. Every time I use my credit card while on vacation, the credit card companies put a stop on my card. (Technically, they call first. Because I'm not home to answer the phone and tell them I'm on vacation, they go ahead and block my card. Darn convenient.)

To the main point, it's easier to harass political opponents than to protect against terrorist attacks. Evidently more fun, too. The fundamental way to hold the administration accountable is to vote them out of office.

Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2003, 02:26 AM:

That's actually a "spending habits" check. If you suddenly start using your card at different kinds of merchants, or far from your home, that's considered suspicious. Someone who took out a card in your name could develop a spending habits profile on it that wouldn't arouse suspicions.

I agree with your main point. I've said it over and over -- 90% of what's being done is just to give the appearance of doing something. So we get intrusive, very visible, but ineffective security.

ruprecht ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2003, 02:27 PM:

It's not so much facism as simple stupidity. Most of the measures undertaken to protect the airlines since Sept 11th have been misguided or just dumb.

The Penn flight taught the hijackers a lesson that the Airport guardians have yet to learn. Boxcutters, little knives, etc are not going to allow you to hijack a plane any longer. The folks will rise up, toss their luggage at and then beat the crap out of anyone who tries.

As long as a gun or bomb doesn't get aboard and the cockpit is sealed things will be okay. The airport security folks should be concentrating on finding explosives using chemical sniffers or something and stop annoying the passengers.

Kris Hasson-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2003, 01:25 AM:

Look, it's more comment spam!