Friday, November 02, 2007

Your Papers, Please?

We all know how the criminal justice system works in this country. A crime is committed. A perpetrator is identified. Evidence is brought against them. They go to court. But in every case, the defendent is required to know and understand what they are accused of and have the chance to refute the evidence brought against them.

Unless, of course, under the current administration, it's a matter of "National Security".

I've been quiet about this for a week and a half, but it's time.

Two weeks ago I traveled back and forth between Minneapolis and Dulles International (Washington, D.C.) with my husband and kids. We were taking a quick trip to visit friends and family. In a repeat performance from our trip to Orlando earlier this year, I once again got "selected" for the special security treatment on the flight out. (On the Orlando trip the entire family got the pat down treatment coming and going.)

After a really lovely weekend in D.C. and Lynchburg, we headed back to the airport. We picked up our tickets at the counter (since I mysteriously could not print out boarding passes at home) and headed for the security line. My 10-year-old daughter stood with me, while Avindair took care of our 15-year-old son. I handed TSA Guy our boarding passes and my ID. This was the conversation we had.

TSA Guy: (pointing at my daughter) I need her photo ID.
Me: She's only 10. She doesn't have a photo ID.
TSA Guy: Huh? I need her ID.
Me: We're not flying overseas. We're only traveling domestically. She doesn't need identification for domestic travel.
TSA Guy: (to TSA Gal next to him - pointing at Kate) Doesn't she need an ID?
TSA Gal: Um... nah. They don't need IDs if they're 15 and under.
TSA Guy: Oh.
TSA Gal: Oh... wait. No... I think it's 18 and under.


The crack security staff didn't even know how old you had to be before you needed a photo ID? These people passed their training? HUH?

Finally, he grudgingly handed back our boarding passes and my ID and allowed us to get in line.

Wait... I don't get the "special treatment" today? I'm going through the line like a normal person for the first time in a long time? It's my lucky day!

Three more TSA people look at my boarding pass, walk me through the metal detector, slide my binned travel bag and shoes through the scanner, and finally allow me to be on my merry way with my family.

We had arrived at the airport very early. The plan was to get through the infamously difficult Dulles security, eat dinner in the terminal, then sit quietly, relax and read until the flight boarded. All was going as planned until about 30 minutes before boarding.

"Would passenger GeekGoddess (name removed to protect the innocent-until-proven-guilty) please come to the gate counter?"

Fearing the worst, I walked up to the counter, Avindair and the kids trailing behind me. At the time, I thought the worst would be a problem at home... someone in the hospital, an accident. Maybe they couldn't reach me on my cell phone.


Turns out security had contacted the airline. I was supposed to have had the "special treatment" and get a "special stamp" on my boarding pass before getting on the flight. Apparantly, the crack TSA staff hadn't done it and the airline wasn't going to let me on the flight without it.

At that time I wondered, just how did they *know* I didn't have the stamp without looking at my boarding pass? How did the TSA know to call the airline? I found out today. Before every flight, no later than 15 minutes before departure, airlines have to send their passenger list to the TSA. The TSA then checks that list against the No-Fly (means you are NOT flying) and the Watch (means that you get the "special treatment") lists. Of course, they don't tell the passengers this.

It took the airline gate staff another 15 minutes to FIND A WORKING TELEPHONE NUMBER for the TSA desk to call them back and ask what to do with me. Apparently, they never found it. Eventually, a surly Continental staff member showed up to escort me all the way back to the security checkpoint, leaving Avindair and the kids at the gate... confused and worried.

As she led me away, slowly rambling along the long concourse, she complained about the long day she'd had and mumbling that I could catch a shuttle back.

Me: A what???
Her: A shuttle.
Me: Why do I need a shuttle? Where am I going? My flight leaves in 30 minutes and my family is waiting for me.
Her: Aw, you'll probably make it.
Me: First, I don't know this airport. Second, where am I going?
Her: Back to get a stamp.
Me: A stamp from where?
Her: Security.
Me: You mean the main security checkpoint? All the way back by the ticket counters?
Her: You'll make it back. It only takes 7 minutes if you use the moving sidewalks.


So. We finally make it to security. Continental Gal start arguing with the TSA Guy #2 over my need for a "special stamp". They argue some more. TSA Guy #2 decides to get a supervisor involved. TSA Super #1 argues with TSA Guy #2 and Continental Gal. Then TSA Super #2 joins in the fray. I jump in with "FLIGHT BOARDING IN 15 MINUTES! FAMILY WAITING AT GATE!" I'm given a look by all of them that sees me as more of a noisy child than a US Citizen/paying passenger. TSA Super #1 suggests I have a seat while they make some phone calls.

I wait for another 10 minutes.


At last, TSA Guy #3 calls me over to once again take off my dangerous jacket, my dangerous shoes, empty my dangerous pockets, and put my dangerous carry-on in the bin. I once again walk through the metal detector (who knows what I might have picked up on the OTHER SIDE of the security barrier the first time). I get the pat down, have TSA Gal #2 swab down my belongings for bomb-making residue.

At least TSA Guy #3 has the decency to look sheepish and say, "Sorry about this," as he stamps my boarding pass with the stamp that TSA Guy #2 said didn't exist.

Continental Gal looks up at me from her magazine and says, "You know the way back," and turns away.

I look up at the clock. Boarding for my flight should be starting about... NOW.

I start to run. I'm guessing it's about 3/4 of a mile. Oh, and the moving sidewalks? Ha! More like mechanical arteries blocked by human plaque.

I arrive at my gate as boarding is beginning. My husband is worried... and angry. My even-tempered son is fuming and furious. My daughter is scared and crying.

After a lot of arguing, Avindair finally pried out of an attendant that I'm on the TSA's "Watch List".

Why? Who knows? Hundreds of thousands of people are on it. The government doesn't have to tell us why. The criteria are a matter of "national security". It could be as simple as having a name similar to someone on the No-Fly list... or it could be "something else". They just won't tell you.

When I got home, I did a little research. The facts so far:

1. There's no way of knowing why you are on the list.
2. The TSA admits that there are many people on the list in error.
3. There is no method an individual can take to be removed completely from the list.
4. If you provide the TSA with more personal information about yourself, you may be shifted to a "verified" portion of the list... but you'll still be subjected to the same scrutiny when traveling.
5. I can no longer print boarding passes from home.
6. I can no longer use eTicket machines at the airport.
7. Every time I fly, I have to wait at the ticket counter to receive a boarding pass from the airline representative.

In short:
- I've been accused of something by our government - along with thousands of other U.S. Citizens.
- My personal freedoms are being curtailed by a government agency without having to provide me with reason, evidence or proof.
- It's impossible to defend myself, when I don't know what I'm defending myself against.

Without having to site criteria, under this umbrella of "national security", who knows what reasons normal U.S. Citizens are being treated like criminals? Is it truly to keep terrorists out? Or is it to "legally" profile and track people based on religion, political affiliation, cultural activities, personal opinion...? We don't know. And if you ask... if you question... you might just end up on a list yourself... perhaps for being "Un-American".

I'm still trying to decide what to do... how to handle this. The ramifications of being identified on this list are more than a little frightening to me. Here I am: 40-year-old woman, married 20 years, mother of two, home owner, good work record, business owner, tax payer, former government employee with security clearance, former Girl Scout leader, never had a run in with the law for more than a speeding ticket, grew up in a Cessna with a father who was a flight instructor... but I get treated like a criminal now every time I travel.

The Watch list, by the way, is filled with people who are considered a potential threat to civil aviation.

Does the description above sound like I'm a threat?

Have you seen the news lately? You all might be joining me before long. Check this out:

There are lots of other good articles/blogs about this. Just do a Google search on "government permission to fly". Funny. For something as important as this, I didn't see anything on the regular news.

If this rule goes into effect, forget about flying off to a romantic getaway at a moment's notice.

Your papers, please?


Avindair said...

Of course it isn't on the news, hon. The execs at FOX and CNN don't fly on airlines; they fly in private jets.

Uh-oh! I think I just said something un-Murican! Guess I'm on the list, too!

BTW, you left of "United States Air Force Officer Selectee" on your background list. Oh, and that you actually helped the security of the US when you reported a Red Army Faction bomb threat against Ramstein AB in 1988. Oh, and...

Bottom line: If you're on the list, then something is wrong with the bloody list.

GeekGoddess said...

1988? That doesn't count. It was before 9/11.

What I have done for them lately?

The scary thing, psychologically, is that right or wrong, without declaring selection criteria, it made me start to question everything I did in the past.

- Was it an affiliation with cultural organization? A religion? A Yahoo discussion group?
- Did I get tagged for signing up for an email newsletter?
- Was it because I signed a petition disagreeing with the current administration?
- Is it because I make phone calls overseas?
- Did I make a credit card purchase for an item or from a company that marked me as suspicious?
- Was it something I wrote on my blog?

And then I realized, isn't that exactly what "they" want? A populace that becomes afraid of their every move... afraid of stepping outside the dictated behavioral conventions... afraid of speaking out... won't protest... won't question... won't object.

If that isn't un-American, I don't know what is.

Hear that whirring noise? It's the sound of the Founding Fathers spinning in their graves.

Avindair said...

"A little revolution now and then is a good thing; the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
- Thomas Jefferson

GeekGoddess said...

"Hey, Boy! Whatchoo talkin' bout? Vampire trees eatin 'muricans? That's anti-murican! Jefferson never said that! He was a good God-fearin, church-goin PATRIOT! You're on the LIST!"

Karen said...

Wasn't government regulated personal travel one of our gripes with the Iron Curtain? Just wondering...

Karen said...

It reminds me of Kafka's The Trial

GeekGoddess said...

Well said, Karen. Avindair and I were living in West Germany when the Berlin Wall fell... 18 years ago now. We remember the cold war and the imposed travel restrictions very well.

Thanks for your comment!