Wednesday, September 28, 2005

No way to run an airline

No, we are not talking about the profitability (or lack thereof) of most of today's airlines -- although there is plenty to talk about there. We refer to the continuing debacle known as airport security.

In the interest of full disclosure, we don't fly much and don't even see anyone off at the airport like we used to (one tradition that has pretty much died since 9/11). Thus we don't get selected, inspected, detected and rejected like other innocent folks, and so it would be easy not to care about the story on Sunday in the online Wired of Sister Glenn Anne McPhee. (Not my problem, sister!)

Except that we do care. A lot. For starters we are Catholic and there is a sneaking suspicion that some TSA people have a sadistic sense of humor, giving a nun the third degree instead of some Islamic terrorist bastard. Mostly we are mad as hell because we are patriotic, God-fearing, Constitution memorizing Americans who remember that this used to be a pretty damn good country.
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' secretary for education, Sister McPhee oversees Catholic education in the United States, from nursery school through post-graduate. Her job includes working with the Department of Education, speaking frequently at conferences and scrutinizing religious textbooks to clear them with the teachings of the church.

For nine months in 2003 and 2004, Sister McPhee also took on the task of clearing her name from the government's no-fly list, an endeavor that proved fruitless until she called on a higher power, the White House.

"I got to the point I could hardly go to the airport, because I couldn't anticipate what would happen and I couldn't do anything," she said in an interview with Wired News. "I missed key addresses I was to give. I finally got to the point where I always checked my bag, because after I got through the police clearance, then they would put me through special security where they wand you from head to foot all over. They would dump out everything in your bag, then roll it into a ball and hand it back to you."

... thanks to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, her ordeal offers one of the most illuminating illustrations of the failures of the airport screening system that has come to light since 9/11. ...

EPIC obtained the call logs of the Transportation Security Administration, the agency in charge of maintaining and enforcing the no-fly list, and found a pattern of complaints from citizens who charged they were mistakenly scooped up time and time again by the anti-terrorist program. In addition, innocent people whose names wound up matching the suspect list, like McPhee, found they had no way to fix the situation, short of pulling strings.

One caller expressed his humiliation at being pulled off a flight. A woman named Elizabeth Green wanted to know how her name ended up on the watch list. A self-described "well-dressed, 100-pound, 69-year-old, gray-haired grandmother" wanted to know why she was always selected for extra screening. Several expressed frustration at the call center's unwillingness to help them get off a government watch list.

You have to read the whole thing to get the real sense of how difficult traveling became for Sister McPhee. She discovered through friends in high places that she was being stopped because an Afghani man was using the alias McPhee in his "nefarious" travels about the world. We don't know whether he was or is a terrorist, just that he used a westernized name.

She admits that once while undergoing screening, she made a "smart remark" to an officer.

"I said something to the effect that 'If this were Northern Ireland, I would understand,'" McPhee said. "And the police officer said, 'Ma'am, I'll pretend I didn't hear that, or otherwise I would have to arrest you.' After that, I didn't say anything."

McPhee's repeated detainments and growing frustration came to the attention of superiors at the US Catholic Conference:

Finally, in May 2004, word of Sister McPhee's crusade made its way up to the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Rev. Monsignor William P. Fay.

"(Fay) said, 'How are you doing your job?' and I said, 'Barely,'" McPhee said.

Fay then personally wrote to Karl Rove, the top political adviser to President Bush, who contacted then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, who passed the task to a top Homeland Security lawyer.

It still required over a year before the TSA officially granted her clearance. Unbelievable.

Four years after 9/11 the nation's airports are neither safe nor secure. We have implemented a system that combines the worst of all possible worlds.

We have a system that relies on the cold, thoughtless logic of computers and the inevitable cold, heartless apathy of human beings who are more concerned with increasing profit to the bottom line. It's a system that hired thousands of pretend police as the gatekeepers of America's airports. In their zeal to act tough and official, they have neglectedthe first rule of crime-fighting: first, you must think.

Out of political correctness we forbid profiling, the directing of attention toward those most likely to want to do us harm. (Why is Norm Minetta still at the helm of the Dept of Transportation?) Instead, we hold little old grandmothers and lollipop wielding tots at gunpoint, but expedite boarding procedures for surly and unruly foreign nationals from the Middle East. We have "contracted" out security to companies that are not accountable to the public.

Some would say in defense, "But we haven't had any airliners hijacked and flown into buildings in four years!"

We would answer, "Thank God for that. It is a testament to divine oversight and the probability that al Quaida has had survival issues of its own to worry about since President Bush took the fight to their home turf."

Airline security, as it is now constituted, is an oxymoron. Americans deserve, and should demand, better.


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