Los Angeles Daily News
David Nelsons want off the list
By Lisa Friedman
Saturday, June 14, 2003 -
WASHINGTON -- The skies haven't been friendly lately for David Nelson.
Any David Nelson.
Throughout Southern California and across the country, men named David Nelson report they have been harassed, questioned by FBI agents, pulled off airplanes, searched and then searched again when attempting air travel.
Apparently caught up in a nationwide dragnet for a terrorist by that name, David Nelsons everywhere are being told their names raise red flags on airline screening software. The government, however, maintains that the problem is essentially a computer glitch the airlines must solve.
Some David Nelsons in Southern California say they don't care why it's happening. They just want their names off the list.
"It was such a fiasco," David Nelson of Hollywood said recently of his most recent attempt at flying.
The 35-year-old actor said he was headed to Hawaii on vacation and handed his driver's license to a ticket agent at LAX, who blurted, "Oh, boy. Here's another David Nelson."
"She told me, 'There's some terrorist with that name or something. That name brings a red flag."'
Only a few months earlier, Nelson was settling into his seat on a New York-bound airplane when a voice called out, "David Nelson, please exit the plane."
Within moments, FBI agents surrounded him, asked him to remove his shoes and searched his carry-on bags again. He eventually was allowed to reboard. But, he said, "When you get back on the plane, people look at you funny."
So when Nelson was stopped again on his Hawaii-bound flight, he said he felt intensely frustrated. Security guards searched him head to toe at the gate, and then insisted on doing it again before he could board.
That's when Nelson said he turned around, abandoned his vacation, and walked out. He hasn't flown since.
Even Ozzie and Harriet's son has been a victim in the case of mistaken David Nelsons.
Now a film producer living in Newport Beach, David Nelson -- a star of ABC-TV's "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," a family sitcom that ran from 1952 to 1966 -- was stopped by a ticket agent at John Wayne Airport in December while on his way to visit his daughter in Salt Lake City.
While waiting, the 66-year-old Nelson chatted with two Laguna Beach police officers who knew him and who asked the ticket agent: "Don't you know who this guy is?"
But the officers were met with a blank stare from the agent.
After some checking, the officers told Nelson: "Evidently the name David Nelson is on the terrorist list."
Nelson replied: "I don't think (terrorists) have the middle name Ozzie, but I'll stay right here." Eventually he was allowed to board his flight.
Then he was stopped again in Salt Lake City on his return flight. But he hasn't had problems flying since.
Recalling the experience, Nelson said: "I didn't mind, to be honest, if it helps them." But "it was a little strange. ... There's no way to clear yourself off the list."
He is among a half-dozen David Nelsons in the Los Angeles area who, in interviews during the past few days, say they experienced similar problems over the past year.
In Oregon, an additional 18 David Nelsons spoke with Portland's The Oregonian newspaper, and four David Nelsons in Alaska reported similar tales to the Juneau Empire.
It's all made David M. Nelson, a former elementary-school teacher in Canoga Park, skeptical of getting on an airplane at all. "I've heard horror stories. If your name is David Nelson, prepare to be detained."
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nico Melendez attributed the problem to the name-matching technology most airlines use. He denied that the name "David Nelson" appears on any list that flags passengers for extra scrutiny, and said the problem is that the software randomly flags "the presence of letters in a name."
David Kennedy, director of research services for TruSecure Corp., a Virginia-based firm that specializes in intelligence security, said he is skeptical of the official explanation.
"I'm more inclined to believe there is a bad David Nelson out there they're looking for."
Indeed, several David Nelsons said airline officials told them the name was listed because a man named David Nelson once barged into an airplane cockpit. Federal officials would not confirm the story.
The main problem, Kennedy said, is the shroud of secrecy that surrounds the TSA's name-matching technology, Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening Program (CAPPS), which was rolled out after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The TSA acknowledges the existence of a "no fly" list that contains names of suspected terrorists and others who are barred from boarding a commercial aircraft. The agency also acknowledges a so-called "selectee" list of those identified for extra scrutiny before boarding.
Melendez described the selectee list as "very dynamic and always changing. It's really not even a list at all."
He said a red flag is triggered when a passenger does something unusual -- buying a ticket with cash, for example, or purchasing a one-way ticket. He maintained that there are no actual names -- such as "David Nelson" -- on the list.
That contradicts the description law enforcement sources have given of selectee lists that contain reams of names tagged for extra questioning.
It also defies the TSA's own private descriptions. According to memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit group the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the TSA itself describes the selectee register as "the list of persons whom air carriers are required to 'select' for additional security screening prior to boarding."
The agency redacted a passage describing problems that have cropped up due to that list and its solutions for fixing them.
"If it was known and obvious how people are selected for added security, an attacker would seek to circumvent those protections by any means," Kennedy said. But, he added, while he understands the need for some secrecy, he said it is starting to erode public confidence in the TSA.
An even bigger problem is getting off the list.
The selectee list, according to security officials, often offers little identifying information other than a first and last name -- making it nearly impossible for Southern California's David Nelsons and the potentially thousands of others nationwide to convince airlines they are not the alleged bad guy.
Take 73-year-old David Nelson, a retired building manager from South Pasadena. His name provoked mass confusion at LAX last August, when he was trying to get to Madison, Wis., for a high school reunion.
Eventually a manager appeared and said, "I'm sorry, your name has appeared on the watch list."
Then Nelson was surrounded by a swarm of security officers -- "I guess so I wouldn't make a break for it," said Nelson, who walks with a cane.
Agents ran his Social Security number, asked several questions and picked through his bags. Finally, he was allowed to board.
But when he transferred planes, it all happened again. And twice again on the flight home.
"I think security is important, but certainly there's a way of putting a name on a list that's not 'David Nelson,"' he said. "I don't think it's a very effective way to control a terrorist getting on a plane."
David Paul Nelson, 47, a secretary for the California Film Commission who lives in West Hollywood, ran into problems in May when he flew to Sacramento from Burbank Airport. The ticket agent, he said, "didn't know what to do. I heard them saying, 'It's the same name."'
All the David Nelsons interviewed said they understood the need for extra security. Some said they didn't mind the inconvenience.
"I have no problem with it. The more people they pull over, the better," said David Nelson, 48, of Canoga Park, a film and television special-effects producer who has been stopped no fewer than four times. On his latest flight, Nelson's wife insisted that she and their children sit elsewhere so the kids wouldn't have to see their dad being pulled off the plane for extra questioning.
And David Nelson, a U.S. Navy engineering technician from Palmdale, said he didn't bother asking what was going on during the two occasions that ticket agents double-checked his paperwork.
"I didn't really understand what it was all about. They didn't really give an explanation. I just figured they're being cautious."
For those that have found being repeatedly detained a major source of frustration, the TSA has created a hotline for those who believe their names have wrongly landed on a list. The number is (866) 289-9673. A call to that number found a wait time of 12 minutes before a representative answered and offered to mail out paperwork.
Some David Nelsons said they won't even bother trying to get off the list.
"I haven't flown again. It's not worth it," said South Pasadena's David Nelson. He said he would like to return to Wisconsin soon to visit family. "We're thinking about driving."
Lisa Friedman, (202) 662-8731 lisa.friedmanlangnews.com