Homeland Security Watchlists

I note in brief (via Free New Mexican):

U.S. immigration officials refused Tuesday to allow Robert Fisk, longtime Middle East correspondent for the London newspaper, The Independent, to board a plane from Toronto to Denver. Fisk was on his way to Santa Fe for a sold-out appearance in the Lannan Foundation’s readings-and-conversations series Wednesday night.

So when Robert Fisk appeared at the Toronto airport to check in, his passport information was punched in and US Department of Homeland Security had him on the security watchlist.  There was no recourse.  He just could not come.  What was the reason?  That information would be secret.  What is a guess?

The controversial British journalist, who is based in Beirut, filed many eyewitness reports on the U.S. invasion of Iraq and criticized Western reporters for “hotel journalism ,” a phrase he coined to describe correspondents who covered the war from heavily fortified hotel suites and offices.

Robert Fisk also gave rise to the term "fisking": Fisking, or to Fisk, is the act of critiquing, often in minute detail, an article, essay, argument, etc. with the intent of challenging its conclusion or theses by highlighting logical fallacies and incorrect facts.

Generally speaking, how does this homeland security watchlist work?  Here is Sara Kehaulani Goo in Faulty 'No-Fly' System Detailed (Washington Post, October 9, 2004).

The federal government's "no-fly" list had 16 names on it on Sept. 11, 2001. Today, it has more than 20,000. ...

Every time a passenger books a ticket, the airline checks the traveler's name against two enormous government databases, or watch lists, of people the government believes pose a threat. The FAA created two lists in 2001: a no-fly list and a so-called selectee list, both of which airlines compare against reservation records. When the TSA was formed in 2002, it took over maintenance of the lists from the FAA. The no-fly list grew from 16 names supplied by the FBI in 2001 to 1,000 names by the end of 2002, according to the newly released TSA documents. There are now more than 20,000 names on the no-fly list, some which are aliases, according to a homeland security source who is not allowed to release such numbers. There are several thousand names on the selectee list, according to the source.

Internal TSA memos direct airlines to refuse boarding to a passenger on the no-fly list and to alert the local FBI. Travelers on the selectee list are to be directed to a law enforcement officer and put through additional security procedures in order to board the plane, the documents said. ...

Passengers are falsely flagged by the lists in such large numbers because of the kind of technology airlines use to compare the reservation lists to the watch lists, according to experts in name-matching technology. Each airline conducts the matches differently. Many major carriers use a system that strips the vowels from each passenger's name and assigns it a code based on the name's phonetic sound, according to the Air Transport Association.

The name-matching technology is "too simplistic for a very complex problem," said Jack Hermansen, co-founder of Language Analysis Systems Inc. in Herndon, a company that has a competing name-matching technology that factors in a name's cultural origin. "It's these accidental matches that cause the big problem."

The phonetic-code concept is traced back to a program called Soundex patented in 1918, which was used by Census Bureau officials to help sort out names that sounded similar but might be spelled differently. The name "Kennedy," for example, would be assigned the Soundex code K530, which is the same code assigned to Kemmet, Kenndey, Kent, Kimmet, Kimmett, Kindt and Knott, according to genealogy Web sites that use the technology. Today's systems are more sophisticated than Soundex, but they grew from the same origins, experts said.

"The reason this technology is used is you're really trying to protect against typing errors," said Steven Pollock, executive vice president at TuVox Inc., a company that sells speech-recognition software. "When someone types in a name, the problem and the challenge is people will spell names incorrectly. . . . Names are definitely the toughest things to get [right], no doubt about it."

But the phonetic coding systems tend to ensnare people who have similar-sounding names, even though a human being could tell the difference. Earlier this month, for example, Rep. Donald E. Young (R-Alaska), said he was flagged on the "watch list" when the airline computer system mistook him for a man on the list named Donald Lee Young. 

Meanwhile, there is presently a hearing at the High Court in Hong Kong concerning why four Taiwanese Falun Gong members were barred entry in February 2003 and sent back to Taiwan.  Those four had filed for a judicial review.

(The Standard)  Falun Gong `not an issue'.  By Albert Wong.  September 22, 2005.

Government counsel Daniel Fung noted that immigration officers and former permanent secretary for security Timothy Tong had already asserted in their affirmations that the practitioners were a security risk, and that there was no reason to believe they were lying.  "Unless it can be demonstrated that what we say is inaccurate or false[the court cannot go beyond] the affidavit evidence," Fung said.


"It is essential for the court to come to grips with the validity of the reasons to justify the refusal of entry," [counsel for the Taiwanese, Paul] Harris said.  Given the applicants' professional status and clean record, and in the absence of clear reasons as to why they might pose a security risk, the natural inference from their refused entry at a time they were coming for a Falun Gong conference is that they were discriminated against because of their religious affiliation, Harris said.  He is seeking information on the watchlist, the identity of those who placed the practitioners on the watchlist, the reasons for the placement, and the date on which the relevant persons were placed and removed from the watchlist.

The judge was none too happy about what he is being told.

(The Standard)  Judge issues sharp rebuke.  By Albert Wong.  September 23, 2005.

The judge noted that the government has already stated that its immigration watchlist is not a "stoplist" and so clearly immigration officers must exercise discretion.

"If I'm an immigration officer and I'm sitting at my desk and I check somebody's passport and a watchlist comes up and says `security' - I know that does not automatically bar him. But I have to ask questions. Well, how can I ask him questions?  What I imagine, is the immigration officer presses [whatever button necessary] and out comes the person's name and it says, 'believed to be Osama bin Laden's cousin.'  Or, if it's a hardline animal activist, `believed to have burnt down a mink farm.' Then I ask him, `Why are you here?' - he says, 'It's my mother's birthday' - so I let him in, because he's not going to sabotage anything."

Hartmann said he could well understand the practitioners wanting to see additional information, because if it only says, "Falun Gong member - 10 years," then their counsel has evidence that entry was refused based on religious affiliation.  "But that's not the case," said Fung. Hartmann said: "But how do I know?"

Or alternatively, noted the judge, the government is saying there is no other information available to the immigration officer at the time apart from "security risk" and if that's the case, "I'm astounded," the judge said.

"That shows a deep irrationality in the process. And I find that really incredible.  In other words, a hardworking officer from Special Branch may find vital intelligence on a terrorist bomber. That person [terrorist] arrives in Hong Kong intent on doing damage.  But all that pops up in front of the immigration officer is 'security.'  So he looks at the guy; he's wearing a tie - and we all know people who wear ties are of a high moral standard - he says he's coming for his mother's birthday.  The officer lets him in, and he blows something up."

"I'm sorry, that's an absurdity," the judge added. 

The hearing was then adjourned until this morning for the government to prepare more affidavits.

So those were the preliminary rounds.  Then we start to peel off the layers as to what really goes on.

(The Standard)  Falun Gong four denied entry as 'threat to public order'.  By Albert Wong.  September 24, 2005.

... two additional affirmations by then acting secretary for security Timothy Tong and the immigration commander of the airport division, Choy Tak-po, were read out Friday by counsel for the government, Daniel Fung SC.

Choy's affirmation stated that at the "first stage" what appears on the computer screen of an immigration assistant "merely shows that the concern is one of security without further elaboration" and that further details are on a "strictly need-to-know basis." Fung explained that in order to minimize queues, the immigration assistant refers the new arrival to an immigration officer, who conducts an interview in a room elsewhere.

However, none of these officers are privy to any elaboration on "security risk" until the "fifth stage" of assessment; the final decision-maker, who was Choy.

He is privy to information unavailable to his junior officers and knew that the practitioners were placed on the watchlist because of suspected engagement in activities "which posed a threat to public order in Hong Kong." 

Fung said none of the four had cited "compelling reasons" to allow their entry.  He said that those whose names were on a watchlist could still be allowed entry if, for example, a parent was seriously ill and in a hospital.

"Not only is there no blanket exclusion [of Falun Gong members], on the contrary, every case is examined individually," Fung said.  He noted the Falun Gong conference continued and was attended by 600 practitioners, most of whom came from overseas. If there was a blanket ban, none would have been allowed in.

"Membership of the Falun Gong itself does not give rise to security concerns," Fung said. For example, "a South Korean pig farmer is not banned by virtue of him being a South Korean pig farmer," but because he may be coming to the MC6 (World Trade Organization conference) as a protester.  Equally, a football hooligan, who supports Bayern Munich, may go abroad without hassle as an insurance salesman, but is barred from entering when Bayern Munich plays Liverpool, Fung said. He is not discriminated against because he supports Bayern Munich, Fung said.