No-fly list: $100 million a year pissed away

From the journal Homeland Security Affairs, a chunky, stat-rich article entitled 'Just How Much Does That Cost, Anyway? An Analysis of the Financial Costs and Benefits of the "No-Fly" List.' Bottom line? We're probably paying $100 million/year for the no-fly list and so far, there's no evidence it's doing anything to fight terrorism.

As will be analyzed below, it is estimated that the costs of the no-fly list, since 2002, range from approximately $300 million (a conservative estimate) to $966 million (an estimate on the high end). Using those figures as low and high potentials, a reasonable estimate is that the U.S. government has spent over $500 million on the project since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Using annual data, this article suggests that the list costs taxpayers somewhere between $50 million and $161 million a year, with a reasonable compromise of those figures at approximately $100 million. Clearly the no-fly list is a program that is not without substantial cost. It represents, at least financially, a large part of the government's protection of air travel. 4 In order to begin to analyze whether or not the benefits are worth the costs, both must be identified and analyzed. It is that task to which the article will now turn…

One of the ramifications of the no-fly list over the last several years has been the number of flight diversions and delays due to list operations. A KLM flight from Amsterdam to Mexico, on April 10, 2005, is a representative example. The plane was en route from Amsterdam to Mexico and was due to cross over U.S. airspace. The U.S. government ordered the plane to return to the Netherlands before reaching the United States because it said two of its passengers were barred from entering U.S. territory. 45 The plane had been in the air for more than four hours before returning to Europe and caused 278 passengers delays of approximately twenty-four hours. The Washington Post reported, in July, 2005, that the two men removed from the flight were questioned but not arrested. In sum there have been seven total diversions, and presumably countless delays, due to no-fly list processing incidents that are not reported. The aim of this section is to assess the costs of these delays…

The problem with the first claim, that the no-fly system works, is that it is relatively easy to bypass the system with a little ingenuity. For instance, the no-fly list's core mechanism is a matching a name to photograph identification. 50 As noted above, the process is for a passenger's name to be cross-checked against the list and then verified as the name matching the individual by checking photo identification. This process assumes a number of key points. First, an assumption is made that the ticket was purchased using the passenger's real name. If a would-be terrorist knows that he or she is on the no-fly list, the next logical step would be to purchase the ticket under an assumed name that is not on the list. Second, the process also assumes that the photo ID is real and represents the true identity of the individual in question. It would be relatively easy, for instance, for someone to make a reservation under an assumed name and either manufacture an ID or use the real identification of the assumed individual. Third, this process is made easier by the increase in "print-at-home" boarding passes, which are easy to forge and allow would-be terrorists to put any name they like on the boarding pass. These three aspects of the no-fly list make it simple for an individual to purchase a ticket under someone else's name, use a real ID to enter the boarding terminal with a forged boarding pass, and then fly on the ticket that has someone else's name. 51 Some security experts have gone so far as to create a "fake boarding pass generator" on the Internet to illustrate how easy it is to forge a boarding pass. 52 Importantly, this is not just a theoretical exercise. A CBS affiliate in Kansas City, in an undercover investigation, was able to enter the TSA secure area by producing a fake ID. 53 The undercover individual was not stopped or asked any additional questions. Thus, if the no-fly list is stopping individuals who wish to commit terrorist attacks, those individuals have not employed all of the strategies that are at their disposal; this should raise questions as to whether or not the no-fly list achieves the benefits its administrators claim.

The second claim made of the no-fly list is that it does stop terrorist events, or at least dangerous individuals, on a routine basis; we do not hear about them because the government keeps that information close to the vest (except when questioned, such as in the Schneier interview). Three questions arise from this claim. First, why would the government want to keep such information secret? Perhaps more importantly, why does the empirical record of other terrorist prevention activities suggest that the government's strategy is very often the opposite? It lets everyone know about potential activities before they are well formed. Finally, if what Hawley claims is true, are there many more potential terrorists in this country than is commonly believed (since they are being stopped several times a week) or is the no-fly list ineffective at stopping terrorists? Is it casting a much wider net and catching non-dangerous individuals as well?

Just How Much Does That Cost, Anyway? An Analysis of the Financial Costs and Benefits of the "No-Fly" List

(via Schneier)