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Mistakes on Terrorist Watch List Affect Even Children

We've heard a lot about airline passengers with common names — Michael Kirby, David Nelson — who are routinely flagged at airports because their names match or resemble one on the federal terrorist watch list.

But it isn’t just adults who get stopped, as Mila Harris, of New York City, told me the other day.

Ms. Harris and her husband — who, she said, had asked that his name not be used because of concerns that he would be flagged himself on business trips — often travel with their twin sons, Alex and Julian. On two occasions, Alex and his family were kept in a holding room upon arrival at Kennedy International Airport from London because his name apparently matched a name on the list.

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Alex was born in 2000.

“They hauled us out of the line and into a holding room,” said Ms. Harris. “It’s 8 o’clock on a Saturday night and they said, ‘We have to call Washington to have him cleared.’ And I’m like, ‘Just who do you suppose is available in Washington at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night?’ ”

It took more than two hours before Alex, a United States citizen like his parents and twin brother, was free to go. That was in late 2006. Six months later, the family arrived again from London, around 11 p.m.

Again, Alex was detained, his mother said, even though she carried his birth certificate and Social Security card.

“I said, ‘Look at him. He’s clearly not a terrorist. He’s 7!’ ” she said.

At one point, after being ordered not to use her cellphone in the holding room, Ms. Harris says she uttered an expletive.

“The officer in charge goes, ‘You can’t swear in here,’ and I go, ‘Oh really? What do you have, the seven curse words written down?’ ” she recalled.

This kind of approach, as Ms. Harris readily conceded, does not usually work with bureaucrats, especially ones holding your passport. She took her husband’s advice and piped down.

Ms. Harris said that when she asked how to get her son off the list, the response was a shrug.

Government officials defend the list, with compelling evidence, as a vital security measure. The authorities said they were well aware of the problems caused by frequent “false positives” — names that are the same as or similar to the names of actual terrorist suspects on the watch list.

There are a total of about 20,000 names of American citizens on the two portions of the watch list — those on the no-fly portion, who are prevented from flying, and those on the selectee portion, who are suspected of questionable connections. Alex and most of those who are stopped at airports share a name with someone on the selectee list.

From the federal data, individual airlines compile their own lists of names. Those names are then matched against the official, more detailed, federal watch list when a passenger turns up with a name similar to one on the “selectee” list, said Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center, which administers the list.

Current versions of the master list are sent to various agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.

Federal agencies and the airlines say they are working to fix the problem of false positives with a program called Secure Flight. But that program has been stalled because of concerns about the federal government’s having access to passenger manifests in advance.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who is on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, says that the fix is taking too long and Congress needs to step up.

“Government created this list with good intentions, but government also has a responsibility to make it as tailored and focused as possible,” to reduce false positives and also to ensure tighter security over all, she said. She is a sponsor of legislation to require the Homeland Security Department to establish what she calls a “one-stop shop” for innocent travelers to get their names cleared from the selectee portion of the list.

Among her constituents with common names who have been snared in the false-positive net are James Smith, a doctor; Jim Miller, a real estate broker; and Jack Anderson, age 7.