The “no fly list” is used to screen for potential terrorist who shouldn’t be allowed on planes. As you can see below, it is no where near reliable. It may be a good indicator to take a closer look at someone but far from perfect. We should be careful about using it for other purposes.
The No Fly List is a list, created and maintained by the United States government‘s Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), of people who are not permitted to board a commercial aircraft for travel in or out of the United States. The list has also been used to divert aircraft, not flying to or from the U.S, away from U.S. airspace. The number of people on the list rises and falls according to threat and intelligence reporting. There were 10,000 names on the list in 2011, 21,000 in 2012, and 47,000 in 2013.
The list—along with the Secondary Security Screening Selection, which tags would-be passengers for extra inspection—was created after the September 11 attacks in 2001. The No Fly List, the Selectee List and the Terrorist Watchlist were created by the administration of George W. Bush and retained by the administration of Barack Obama. The list has been criticized on civil liberties and due process grounds, due in part to the potential for ethnic, religious, economic, political, or racial profiling and discrimination. It has also raised concerns about privacy and government secrecy. Finally, it has been criticized as costly, prone to false positives, and easily defeated.
The No Fly List is different from the Terrorist Watch List, a much longer list of people said to be suspected of some involvement with terrorism. The Terrorist Watch List contained around 1,000,000 names by March 2009.
False positives and abuses that have been in the news include:
- Numerous children (including many under the age of five, and some under the age of one) have generated false positives.
- Daniel Brown, a United States Marine returning from Iraq, was prevented from boarding a flight home in April 2006 because his name matched one on the No Fly List.
- David Fathi, an attorney for the ACLU of Iranian descent and a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit, has been arrested and detained because his name was on No Fly List.
- Asif Iqbal, a management consultant and legal resident of the United States born in Pakistan, plans to sue the U.S. government because he is regularly detained when he tries to fly, because he has the same name as a former Guantanamo detainee. Iqbal’s work requires a lot of travel, and, even though the Guantanamo detainee has been released, his name remains on the No Fly List, and Iqbal the software consultant experiences frequent, unpredictable delays and missed flights. He is pushing for a photo ID and birthdate matching system, in addition to the current system of checking names.
- Robert J. Johnson, a surgeon and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, was told in 2006 that he was on the list, although he had had no problem in flying the month before. Johnson was running as a Democrat against U.S. Representative John McHugh, a Republican. Johnson wondered whether he was on the list because of his opposition to the Iraq War. He stated, “This could just be a government screw-up, but I don’t know, and they won’t tell me.” Later, a 60 Minutes report brought together 12 men named Robert Johnson, all of whom had experienced problems in airports with being pulled aside and interrogated. The report suggested that the individual whose name was intended to be on the list was most likely the Robert Johnson who had been convicted of plotting to bomb a movie theater and a Hindu temple in Toronto.
- In August 2004, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) told a Senate Judiciary Committee discussing the No Fly List that he had appeared on the list and had been repeatedly delayed at airports. He said it had taken him three weeks of appeals directly to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to have him removed from the list. Kennedy said he was eventually told that the name “T Kennedy” was added to the list because it was once used as an alias of a suspected terrorist. There are an estimated 7,000 American men whose legal names correspond to “T Kennedy”. (Senator Kennedy, whose first name was Edward and for whom “Ted” was only a nickname, would not have been one of them.) Recognizing that as a U.S. Senator he was in a privileged position of being able to contact Ridge, Kennedy said of “ordinary citizens”: “How are they going to be able to get to be treated fairly and not have their rights abused?” Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani pointed to this incident as an example for the necessity to “rethink aviation security” in an essay on homeland security published while he was seeking the Republican nomination for the 2008 presidential election.
- U.S. Representative, former Freedom Rider, and Chairman of SNCC John Lewis (politician) (D-GA) has been stopped many times.
- Canadian journalist Patrick Martin has been frequently interrogated while traveling, because of a suspicious individual, believed to be a former Provisional Irish Republican Army bomb-maker, with the same name.
- Walter F. Murphy, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, reported that the following exchange took place at Newark on 1 March 2007, where he was denied a boarding pass “because I [Murphy] was on the Terrorist Watch list.” The airline employee asked, “Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that.” Replied Murphy, “I explained that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution.” To which the airline employee responded, “That’ll do it.”
- David Nelson, the actor best known for his role on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, is among various persons named David Nelson who have been stopped at airports because their name apparently appears on the list.
- Jesselyn Radack, a former United States Department of Justice ethics adviser who argued that John Walker Lindh was entitled to an attorney, was placed on the No Fly List as part of what she  believes to be a reprisal for her whistle-blowing.
- In September 2004, former pop singer Cat Stevens (who converted to Islam and changed his name to “Yusuf Islam” in 1978) was denied entry into the U.S. after his name was found on the list.
- In February 2006, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) stated in a committee hearing that his wife Catherine had been subjected to questioning at an airport as to whether she was Cat Stevens due to the similarity of their names.
- U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK), the third-most senior Republican in the House, was flagged in 2004 after he was mistaken for a “Donald Lee Young”.
- Some members of the Federal Air Marshal Service have been denied boarding on flights that they were assigned to protect because their names matched those of persons on the no-fly list.
- In August 2008, CNN reported that an airline captain and retired brigadier general for the United States Air Force has had numerous encounters with security officials when attempting to pilot his own plane.
- After frequent harassment at airport terminals, a Canadian businessman changed his name to avoid being delayed every time he took a flight.
- In October 2008, the Washington Post reported that Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent political activists as terrorists, and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases, with labels indicating that they were terror suspects. The protest groups were also entered as terrorist organizations. During a hearing, it was revealed that these individuals and organizations had been placed in the databases because of a surveillance operation that targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq war.
- In April 2009, TSA refused to allow an Air France flight from Paris to Mexico to cross U.S. airspace because it was carrying Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina. Air France did not send the passenger manifest to the US authorities; they did however send it to Mexico who forwarded it to the US.
- Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan was held for extensive questioning by US Immigration and Customs officials in August 2009, because as he reported, “his name came up on a computer alert list.” Customs officials claimed he “was questioned as part of a routine process that took 66 minutes.” Khan was visiting the United States to promote his film My Name Is Khan, which concerns racial profiling of Muslims in the United States.
- In June 2010, The New York Times reported Yahya Wehelie, a 26-year-old Muslim-American man was being prevented from returning to the United States, and trapped inCairo. Despite Wehelie’s offer to FBI agents to allow them to accompany him in the plane, while shackled, he was not permitted to return. The ACLU has argued that this constitutes banishment.
- A U.S. citizen, stranded in Colombia after being placed on the no-fly list as a result of having studied in Yemen, sought to re-enter the U.S. through Mexico but was returned to Colombia by Mexican authorities.
- Michael Migliore, a 23-year-old Muslim convert and dual citizen of the United States and Italy, was detained in the United Kingdom after traveling there from the U.S. by train and then cruise ship because he was not permitted to fly. He said that he believes he was placed on the no-fly list because he refused to answer questions about a 2010 Portland car bomb plot without his lawyer present. He was released eight or ten hours later, but authorities confiscated his electronic media items including a cell phone and media player.
- Abe Mashal, a 31-year-old Muslim and United States Marine Veteran, found himself on the No Fly List in April 2010 while attempting to board a plane out of Midway Airport. He was questioned by the TSA, FBI and Chicago Police at the airport and was told they had no clue why he was on the No Fly List. Once he arrived at home that day two other FBI agents came to his home and used a Do Not Fly question-and-answer sheet to question him. They informed him they had no idea why he was on the No Fly List. In June 2010 those same two FBI agents summoned Mashal to a local hotel and invited him to a private room. They told him that he was in no trouble and the reason he ended up on the No Fly List was because of possibly sending emails to an American imam they may have been monitoring. They then informed him that if he would go undercover at various local mosques, they could get him off the No Fly List immediately and he would be compensated for such actions. Mashal refused to answer any additional questions without a lawyer present and was told to leave the hotel. Mashal then contacted the ACLU and is now being represented in a class-action lawsuit filed against the TSA, FBI and DHS concerning the legality of the No Fly List and how people end up on it. Mashal feels as if he was blackmailed into becoming an informant by being placed on the No Fly List. Mashal has since appeared on ABC, NBC, PBS and Al Jazeera concerning his inclusion on the No Fly List. He has also written a book about his experience titled “No Spy No Fly.” 
- In November 2002 Salon reported that the No-Fly program seemed “to be netting mostly priests, elderly nuns, Green Party campaign operatives, left-wing journalists, right-wing activists and people affiliated with Arab or Arab-American groups.” Art dealer Doug Stuber, who ran Ralph Nader’s Green Party presidential campaign in North Carolina in 2000, was prevented from flying to Europe on business in October 2002. He was repeatedly pulled out of line, held for questioning until his flight left, then told falsely he could take a later flight or depart from a different airport. Barbara Olshansky, then Assistant Legal Director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, noted that she and several of her colleagues received special attention on numerous occasions. On at least one occasion, she was ordered to pull her trousers down in view of other passengers.