Weekly Standard columnist ends up on TSA terror watch list

I’ve had more than my fair share of exciting experiences with the TSA. I have a nearly unparalleled track record for finding TSA inspection tags in my bags every time I fly and my bags never seem to make it directly onto the input carrousel without a visit to somebody in uniform first. But whether that is through some historically bad rolling of the cosmic dice or my name popping up with an asterisk on airline check-in computer screens, I’ve apparently fared better than Stephen Hayes has.

Stephen Hayes, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a regular Fox News contributor, was informed Tuesday that he had been placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s Terrorist Watchlist…

“When I went online to check in with Southwest, they wouldn’t let me. I figured it was some glitch,” he explained. “Then I got to the airport and went to check in. The woman had a concerned look on her face. She brought over her supervisor and a few other people. Then they shut down the lane I was in, took me to the side, told me I was a selectee and scrawled [something] on my ticket.”

“On my way back. the same thing happened,” he continued. “I got pulled out, they closed down the lane, and did a full pat-down and looked in all parts of my luggage.”

Things got slightly awkward on that return flight, because one of the TSA employees was a frequent Fox News viewer. “He knew I wasn’t an actual terrorist,” Hayes explained, “but it didn’t matter.”

Hayes finally contacted Southwest on Tuesday, ahead of another flight, to ask why he couldn’t check in. A customer service supervisor told him he wasn’t going to be able to get a boarding pass before arriving at the airport.

“So I asked if I was on the government’s terrorist watchlist, and she said ‘Yes.’”

There may be more to the story than the average blogger might assume, though. As Doug Mataconis points out, the couple’s recent travel itinerary may have triggered some sort of automatic system red flags.

In Hayes’s case, there apparently hasn’t been any explanation for what happened either, but I suppose the fact that he and his wife had flown one-way to Turkey might be as good a reason as any, which at least suggests that it occurred because of some automatic procedure that flags everyone who engages in such travel behavior. Nonetheless, there was nothing particularly unusual about what Hayes and his wife did here; they flew to Turkey for a cruise and when cruise ended they departed via Athens, which was presumably closer to the final destination of the cruise. Hayes and his wife can hardly have been the first Americans to take this itinerary over the past thirteen years, does this mean that all of them end up on the TSA watch list? If that’s the case then it seems like a fairly apt demonstration of just how useless these lists have become.

There are a few layers to this puzzle. Clearly the lists maintained by the TSA can grow to the point of becoming useless, given the number of travelers, both foreign and domestic, who fly through our airspace. If additions are being made based on nothing more than seeing a journalist write something critical of the administration or give a critical interview on Fox News, then there is clearly a problem to be addressed. If triggers such as Hayes’ sea cruise are leading to false positives, that’s a bit more understandable. But finding a remedy could require far more resources than we’re willing to invest. Somebody had to field every complaint, make sure that the person isn’t an actual threat and then actively remove them from the list. And this has to be done without getting too happy with your housekeeping and removing people who might be actual threats. It’s a puzzle to be sure.

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