A St. Paul mom was told that her 2-year-old son, Jack, couldn't fly because he was on a terror watch list. Sen. Amy Klobuchar wants to keep that from happening to other innocent travelers.
The airlines thought John, who goes by Jack, was on a terror watch list.
Agents were dumbfounded when they looked over the counter to see the suspected terrorist -- a 2-year-old St. Paul toddler dozing in his stroller with a pacifier hanging from his mouth.
Two years later, the family was stopped by airport security again, owing to Jack's common name. The Andersons have since given up flying, waiting for federal authorities to fix a database that has ensnared more than 30,000 Americans.
Prompted by cases such as Jack's, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is announcing legislation today to minimize airport delays and correct other problems caused by the watch list.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI created a consolidated watch list to help identify potential terrorists. The list contains more than 1 million records on 400,000 individuals and is often used at airports and borders.
A Government Accountability Office report said the watch list "enhanced U.S. counterterrorism efforts."
October's report said the list created "the opportunity to collect and share information on known or appropriately suspected terrorists with law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community."
Klobuchar acknowledged that it's important to have a watch list to help gather information. "I am not opposed to it, but we need to use the technology available to reduce the number of misidentifications."
The list has received criticisms from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union as innocent people go through increased scrutiny because their name resembles another on the list.
Not every John Anderson, Jim Smith or Susan Jones has problems. Passengers are stopped because of some combination of factors.
When she makes her announcement today, Klobuchar will be accompanied by the Andersons, as well as Dr. James Smith, a Bloomington physician who also has had problems with the watch list. He arrives three hours early for flights, anticipating delays after he was first stopped at the Twin Cities airport in 2004.
"This demonstrates the incompetence of our government," said Smith. "They are supposed to protect me, and they are spending all of their resources on me."
The government said that all too often, the mistake is made by the airlines.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said the department is working closely with airlines to prevent misidentifications.
"TSA hopes to resolve the issue with airlines cooperatively," she said, but added that fines or other penalties "remain an option for carriers that inaccurately tell passengers they are watch-listed."
TSA officials are also very guarded about how different names end up on the watch list, citing national security.
"Watch lists keep legitimate terror threats off of airplanes every day, all over the world," Harmon added.
For Jack's mom, Christine Anderson, the watch list has brought the war on terror straight into their home.
When they first encountered airport security in 2004, officials told her that Jack wasn't allowed to board the plane. That prompted her other two sons to burst into tears, fearing their Disney World trip was kaput and their little brother was a criminal.
In the end, airport staff escorted the family through additional security checkpoints, but multiple letters to the TSA to clear the boy's name haven't been successful. TSA provides information on its website to help people through the process.
Two years later, during another flight check-in at the Twin Cities airport, the Andersons hit another snag. They were once again allowed to fly, but the security checks frightened Jack as airport officials stared at him in disbelief.
"After that trip, he expressed the fact that he didn't want to fly anymore," Christine Anderson said. "He just kept asking me, 'Why am I on the terrorist watch list? I don't understand why I am a terrorist.'"
Jack, described by his mother as a vibrant and articulate drama king, turned 7 on July 4 and is already thinking about changing his name to evade future problems.
"I wanted them to have a carefree childhood, and now they have big questions about terrorism," she said. "It's one of the hardest parts many people don't grasp."
Despite the problems the family has encountered, his mom said the family manages to keep things lighthearted.
"If he comes into the room and throws toys his brothers say, 'See, look, he is a terrorist,'" his mom said.
Jack insists he isn't a real threat, despite his brothers' claims. "They think I'm a terrorist, but I'm not," he said.
While her family no longer flies, Christine Anderson worries that her son's association with the list will taint his trust in the government and prevent him from getting government jobs as an adult. "I get they are trying to protect us, but at the same time, at what cost?"
Emily Kaiser • 202-408-2723