Making a list, checking it twice

Life on the federal terrorist watch list

Jon Letman

LIHUE—This is a story about a surfer named Tom.

Born and raised on Kauai, Tom has been surfing since he was a small child. He has a job too, of course. He’s a web programmer, working with several others, implementing web shopping carts and custom applications for websites around the country. He also manages the computer network for a Hawaii-based non-profit that does environmental work. But his passion, Tom will tell you, is surfing.

Tom gets in the water whenever he can, surfing around Kauai depending on where the waves are. Over the years, he has surfed abroad too—Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, France, the Bahamas … You could say Tom is like a lot of people in Hawaii who have a regular job but, if they could, would surf everyday.

One other thing you should know about Tom, something he just found out himself, is that he has been added to the federal terrorist watch list.

He learned this recently at the Honolulu Airport minutes before boarding an Air Pacific flight to Western Samoa where he had planned a one-week solo surfing trip to the island of Savaii.

Fiji’s national carrier Air Pacific makes the five-and-a-half hour flight from Honolulu to Apia, the capital of Samoa, once a week, departing Oahu on Friday mornings, arriving mid-day. To fly out of Lihue on the first flight and still make his connecting flight to Samoa would have been really close so Tom flew over on Thursday night and stayed at the Best Western near the airport.

On Friday morning Tom returned to the airport and checked his one piece of a luggage—a seven-foot board bag with three surfboards. The rest of his belongings (a couple pair of shorts, a few t-shirts, a toothbrush, and two books) fit in a carry-on sized backpack.

“I was just going to surf for a week. I was totally unplugged. I wanted to get away from computers and telephones. It’s nice to do that every once in a while,” he says.

After leaving his surfboards with TSA, Tom went through security, and headed to his gate. It was there that two Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers were checking passports. One woman checked Tom’s passport, said “okay,” then returned it to him.

Tom describes the encounter:

“Behind her was another guy who asked for my passport. This was a DHS officer, wearing a gun and a badge,” Tom recalls. “I give him my passport and he says, ‘come with me, I’m going to ask you some questions.’

“So I walk over to where they were screening people. He pulls out this clipboard with a paper that says ‘Department of Homeland Security Travel Suspect Inquiry Form’ or something like that at the top.

“The form has a bunch of questions starting with my name, date of birth, place of birth, social security number. It goes on to my address, telephone number, current place of employment, address of employment, the name of my supervisor. They want to know everything.

“The next questions are like ‘have you ever been arrested?’—no. ‘Have you ever been in prison?’—no. ‘Have you ever had a run-in with the law?’ What about traffic tickets?

“I tell him I think the last time I got a traffic ticket I was 21 and going through the middle of Nevada and I paid it right away. That was literally the last time I had a traffic ticket.

“He then says, ‘I’m going to go through your bag,’ so he takes every single thing out of my carry-on including my books. He flips through all the pages. He takes out my toiletries bag, squirts a little toothpaste out of the tube. It was really, really thorough.

“He goes through everything, then pats me down, looks at my belt and asks me, ‘what is this?’ ‘It’s my prescription, it has my name on it,’ I answer.

“At the end he says, ‘Okay, you’re free to go.’ So I ask, ‘can you tell me why I was pulled to the side? He says, ‘oh, it’s just random. Have a good trip.’

“By then it was time to board so I jumped on the plane and flew to Samoa.”

Here Tom recalls one more thing from that morning:

“As he was going through my bag, a voice crackles on his radio and says, ‘yeah, we found the bag.’ I didn’t think it had anything to do with me at the time, but when I got my bag at the airport in Samoa I could see something was wrong because it was packed differently. I packed it in a special way so my boards wouldn’t get damaged. There was a big bulge in the middle and the zipper had been broken off my bag.

“I went over to the Samoan customs agent and he kind of looked in my bag and said, ‘no problem.’ Later, when I finally unpacked my bag, I noticed I was missing two pairs of boxers. I thought, ok, that’s weird, maybe they fell out or something because the bag was not really closed all the way.”

*      *      *

After a week of surfing and chilling on the very, very chilled island of Savaii, Tom’s summer vacation was came to an end and it was time to fly back to Hawaii. Another Air Pacific flight, this time from Apia to Honolulu and there he was back in the United States at 7 o’clock on a Friday morning.

Tom was one of the first passengers off the plane and was at the front of the line for U.S. immigration.

Once again, he recalls the morning:

“I give the guy my passport. He looks at it, puts it through the scanner, he looks at the screen, he looks at my passport, he looks at me, he squints at the screen and goes, ‘have you done this before?’

“I’m like, ‘done what?’

“So he says, ‘okay, come with me.’ He was real courteous. He walks me downstairs to where the luggage pick-up area is, holding my passport the whole time. He asks how many bags I have. ‘Only one bag,’ I tell him, ‘surfboards.’

“He says, ‘oh, this is going to take a while.’ So he tells me to sit and wait for my bag. He then goes over and gives my passport to another guy. I go over to make sure he has my passport and doesn’t lose it. The second guy gives my passport to someone else who comes out and says, ‘I’m at podium number five. When you get your bag, come to podium number five.’

“So I’m like, okay cool, no problem.”

Tom takes a seat by the luggage carrousel and waits for his surfboard bag. He then looks to his left and suddenly sees five DHS officers running toward him. Three of the officers have their hands on their guns as they surround Tom.

“As soon as they get near me, they shout my full name and say, ‘where’s your passport? Give me your passport!’ ‘That guy has it over there,’ I say, pointing to the first officer. These guys are pretty high-strung.

“One officer asks, ‘Are you going back to Samoa today?’ So I say, ‘No.’ He then says, ‘Well, you’re booked on the flight to Samoa.’ And so I say, ‘No I’m not.’

“‘Our records say you are flying back to Samoa today,’ the officer insists.

“At this point I recognize one of the agents as the one who interviewed me a week earlier on my way to Samoa. I tell him this and he says, ‘oh yeah,’ and kind of smiles.

“I say, ‘I’m not going back to Samoa,’ so he asks me what I’m doing. I tell him I am going home to Kauai. After the DHS officers realize I am not going back to Samoa they lighten up. I tell them I had been on a surf trip and one of the guys asks how it was and informs me that I missed a south swell in Hawaii.

“They all laugh and walk off. That was the end of the exchange.”

Eventually Tom’s board bag arrives and he takes it to podium five where he had been instructed to go. His surfboards are x-rayed and then he is told to open his bag.

“They pull every single piece of clothing out and go through absolutely everything, taking out each board individually from the board socks and check to make sure they were really surfboards,” Tom explains. “They shake out the board socks too. They take out my books and flip through all the pages.

“There is a lady and an older gentleman who search everything. He asks me questions, going over the entry card. He goes through every single one of my answers and says, ‘are you sure there’s nothing you want to change on this card?’ So I’m like, ‘Yeah. I answered everything.’ ‘Are you sure?’ he keeps repeating.

“They make me write on the back that I brought home a set of table place mats for my wife. Then they go through everything in my bags, not quite as thorough as the guy on the way out, but still a pretty thorough search.

“At the end, I ask the officer, ‘What’s the reason I got searched on the way out and the way in? I know there’s something going on. Am I on a watch list or something?

“He’s like, ‘Yep. You’re on the federal terrorist watch list. Welcome home.’

“I don’t think I should be on this list and ask him if there was anything I can do to get off the list.

“So he hands me a two-page brochure that says to fill out a redress complaint form at”

While waiting for his inter-island flight back to Kauai, Tom decided to fill out the form using the web browser on his cell phone. In addition to the form itself, he was told to send a copy of his passport and driver’s license. The DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program requires travelers who have been flagged on the terrorist watch list to provide details about their employment, previous addresses, any aliases used, and a declaration of any past convictions or criminal involvement as part of their attempt to be removed from the list.

At the end of process, those on watch lists are given a redress control number and told they can check their status using the number at the DHS website. A link on the site opens a 25-page document entitled Privacy Impact Assessment for DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.

The document explains that the Rice-Chertoff Initiative, as it is called, was started in 2006 under then DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “establish a government-wide traveler screening redress process to resolve questions if travelers are incorrectly selected for additional screening.”

Travelers like Tom who feel they have been wrongly selected for undue screening, luggage checks, intrusive questioning, flight delays, or even being refused onto a flight, can apply for redress control number and hope they are eventually removed from the list.

The website posts discussions by people who, for one reason or another, have been singled out and added to the list. In some of the postings, people describe applying for a redress number years prior with most of them still waiting for a response, unsure if they are still on “the list.”

Until their names are removed (if they are removed), these people will continue to wonder if the next time they fly they’ll be pulled aside for a private interrogation, asked to prove they have no criminal record, and be subjected to body and bag searches as a final send off (or welcome back) by the very government that frequently insists its people are the freest in all the world.

As for Tom, he doesn’t know why his name is on the list and when, if ever, it will be removed.

Wishing to avoid additional attention, “Tom” (not his real name), asked a different name be used for this story.