The US government's list of banned airline passengers has grown from just 16 names on Sept. 11, 2001, to thousands of people today amid signs of internal confusion and dissent over how the list is implemented, newly disclosed government documents and interviews showed on Friday.
A transportation security official acknowledged in one internal memorandum that the standards used to ban passengers because of terrorism concerns were "necessarily subjective," with "no hard and fast rules."
More than 300 pages of internal documents, turned over by the Justice Department on Friday as part of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), provide a rare glimpse inside the workings of the government's so-called no-fly list.
Federal officials are maintaining tight secrecy over the list, saying little publicly about how it is developed, how many people are on it or how it is put into practice, even as prominent people like Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy are being mistakenly blocked from boarding planes.
The ACLU sued the federal government last year under the Freedom of Information Act on behalf of two San Francisco women who said they suspected their vocal antiwar protests led to their being banned from flying.
Thomas Burke, a lawyer for the ACLU, said the documents raised "some very serious concerns about the criteria the government is using in developing the no-fly list and the internal miscommunication in implementing it."
In an internal e-mail message in May 2002, for instance, an FBI supervisor, whose name was deleted, complained that the Transportation Security Administration had made the FBI responsible for pursuing possible matches from the list but had failed to inform the bureau about changes in directives.
In another internal message in October 2002, an FBI official in St. Louis cited difficulties in getting suspects put on the no-fly list and in coordinating different watch lists. The various watch lists "are not comprehensive and not centralized," said the official, whose name was also deleted.
Some people "appear on one list but not the others. Some of the lists are old and not current. We are really confused," the official said.
The list grew drastically after the Sept. 11 attacks, and one document in Friday's material said the number of banned passengers ballooned to nearly 600 within about two months. Another 365 names were put on a secondary list that allows them to board a plane after closer scrutiny. The two lists had grown to about 1,000 names by December 2002.
The documents do not give a current total, but a law enforcement official said the names on the no-fly and secondary flight lists total about 10,000, with the no-fly list accounting for "a few thousand."