Thursday, August 5, 2010
Hero cop has been battling red tape for eight years to get name off terrorist watch list
Robert Johnson spent 33 years in law enforcement, 21 of them with the NYPD, where he went undercover against a Colombian cartel and the Genovese crime family.
He then served as a Customs officer and as an ATF intelligence analyst with top secret clearance.
His father was a submariner killed in action during World War II.
He served four years in the Marine Corps.
He has two sons who are detectives.
And for eight years, he has been unable to convince the airlines and his government to stop confusing him with someone of the same name who is on the terrorist watch list.
"With my background, do you really think I would pose a threat to anyone except the bad guys?" he asked the Homeland Security folks at one point.
After seemingly endless phone calls, letters, forms, supporting documents and more supporting documents to replace the ones that were misplaced, he was still unable to buy a ticket online or check in at an electronic kiosk.
Never mind that the underwear bomber was able to breeze aboard a jetliner with explosives without the slightest hassle. Johnson was again and again directed to wait in an invariably long line to see a ticket agent and prove he is not the Robert Johnson who is on the watch list.
Yesterday, a government spokeswoman informed me that the prolonged insult is finally over, thanks to what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has described as a "major aviation security milestone."
In what passes for a milestone at Homeland Security, the government is actually checking passengers against its watch list rather than leaving the task to the airlines.
And where the airlines asked only for a passenger's name, the government's Secure Flight Program is taking the revolutionary step of asking for the gender and the date of birth.
Presto! The government should now be able to distinguish Robert Johnson the retired cop from Robert Johnson the suspected terrorist.
Johnson the cop will remain skeptical until he flies again.
He was told eight years ago that he need only call Homeland Security to get himself off the list. Homeland Security then told him he need only submit a four-page Passenger Identity Verification Form, or PIVF, to the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or TRIP. The first indication that TRIP is aptly named came when it lost his supporting documents.
He resubmitted the documents, adding photocopies of his ID cards from various law enforcement agencies and even a photo of himself and his detective sons in uniform. A second TRIP letter informed him government records "were modified to address any delay or denial of boarding that you may have experienced as a result of the watch list screening program."
The next time Johnson tried to get a boarding pass online, he again ended up on line at the ticket counter. He submitted the PIVF to TRIP in four separate years and nothing changed.
"Maybe I'm a terrorist and I don't know about it," he said in exasperation earlier this week.
Now, Homeland Security insists that the situation really has been resolved at long last.
The question remains: Why did it take so many years when even your local pharmacist routinely checks your DOB to make sure there is no confusion?
But, hey, progress is progress.
Who knows, maybe Homeland Security will someday even manage to keep real terrorists from boarding.