Sister Glenn Anne McPhee is a busy woman.
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' secretary for education, Sister
McPhee oversees Catholic education in the United States, from nursery school
through post-graduate. Her job includes working with the Department of Education,
speaking frequently at conferences and scrutinizing religious textbooks to clear
them with the teachings of the church.
For nine months in 2003 and 2004, Sister McPhee also took on the task
of clearing her name from the government's no-fly list, an endeavor that proved
fruitless until she called on a higher power, the White House.
"I got to the point I could hardly go to the airport, because
I couldn't anticipate what would happen and I couldn't do anything," she
said in an interview with Wired News. "I missed key addresses I was to
give. I finally got to the point where I always checked my bag, because after
I got through the police clearance, then they would put me through special security
where they wand you from head to foot all over. They would dump out everything
in your bag, then roll it into a ball and hand it back to you."
McPhee is not the first high-profile individual to be caught by the
government's watch lists. Sen. Edward Kennedy and former presidential candidate
John Anderson both found that their names matched names on the list, but like
McPhee, were able to resolve the problem by contacting powerful officials.
But, thanks to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, her
ordeal offers one of the most illuminating illustrations of the failures of
the airport screening system that has come to light since 9/11. The Electronic
Privacy Information Center plans to release the results of the FOIA request
this week, Wired News has learned, handing the latest black eye to a government
initiative aimed at preventing terrorists from boarding commercial flights that
originate in the United States.
EPIC obtained the call logs of the Transportation Security Administration,
the agency in charge of maintaining and enforcing the no-fly list, and found
a pattern of complaints from citizens who charged they were mistakenly scooped
up time and time again by the anti-terrorist program. In addition, innocent
people whose names wound up matching the suspect list, like McPhee, found they
had no way to fix the situation, short of pulling strings.
One caller expressed his humiliation at being pulled off a flight. A woman
named Elizabeth Green wanted to know how her name ended up on the watch list.
A self-described "well-dressed, 100-pound, 69-year-old, gray-haired grandmother"
wanted to know why she was always selected for extra screening. Several expressed
frustration at the call center's unwillingness to help them get off a government
Sister McPhee's chronicle of frustration began in mid-October 2003, after she
was stopped at Baltimore Washington International airport on her way to Providence,
Unable to check in using the airline's kiosks, McPhee handed her driver's license
and reservation to an airline employee, who keyed her name into the computer
system and then disappeared with her license into an internal door.
When he returned an hour later, he was accompanied by two police officers.
The officers flanked the 62-year-old Dominican nun, one standing with his hand
on his gun, the other using a cell phone to run a security check.
Three hours later, having missed two planes, Sister McPhee was cleared to enter
the security line, where she was wanded from head to toe with a magnometer.
"This was the beginning of nine months of hell," McPhee said.
Before flying back to Washington, D.C., McPhee called a family connection who
works at an airline and who had access to the watch lists provided by the government
to the airlines.
Sister McPhee was being stopped because the list said that an Afghani man was
using the last name McPhee as an alias. The list had no first name for him,
and the intensive checks would continue until she cleared her name with the
ombudsman at the Transportation Security Administration, according to this family
McPhee, who travels two or three times a month for her work, tried contacting
the TSA's call center, but had to continue traveling until her name was cleared.
"I was now leaving three hours ahead, being at airports ahead of time,
only to still miss planes. I was delayed up to five hours," McPhee said.
Sister McPhee prides herself on being a law-abiding citizen and says the only
time she has been in trouble with the police was when she got a speeding ticket
at age 23.
She admits that once while undergoing screening, she made a "smart remark"
to an officer.
"I said something to the effect that 'If this were Northern Ireland, I
would understand,'" McPhee said. "And the police officer said, 'Ma'am,
I'll pretend I didn't hear that, or otherwise I would have to arrest you.' After
that, I didn't say anything."
When she was not traveling, however, Sister McPhee tried to say something to
McPhee said she called the TSA's complaint line and left numerous messages.
Though the recording promised that someone would call her back in 72 hours,
the TSA never called her back.
Call logs from TSA's call center acquired by EPIC have no notation of contact
with McPhee until May 13, 2004.
TSA paid Landover, Maryland-based Systems Integration more than $2 million
to handle calls to the TSA complaint line from Oct. 21, 2002, to Jan. 21, 2004.
Of that $2 million, $452,000 was specifically earmarked for the company to deal
with the voicemail backlog.
Still, no one ever called her back.
Finally, in May 2004, word of Sister McPhee's crusade made its way up to the
head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Rev. Monsignor William
"(Fay) said, 'How are you doing your job?' and I said, 'Barely,'"
Fay then personally wrote to Karl Rove, the top political adviser to President
Bush, who contacted then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, who passed the task
to a top Homeland Security lawyer.
McPhee said the lawyer immediately got the TSA to respond, and also gave her
his cell-phone number in case she was ever stopped again.
TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O'Sullivan confirmed that the TSA called McPhee in 2005
after receiving a letter from the Conference of Bishops via the White House, and
placed her name on the cleared list this summer. But she said it is highly unlikely
that the agency would have failed to log numerous voicemails from the same person
over an extended period of time, since a number of employees share the responsibility
of keeping call records. She also said that the agency sent McPhee a form to fill
out in May 2004 after getting an earlier letter from the Conference of Bishops,
but that it has no record she returned the form.
"When I came off that list, it was like a miracle had happened, and the
relief I can't begin to describe to you. It did help my faith," McPhee
said. "Those nine months were the closest thing to hell I hope I will ever
Still, McPhee believes that if she didn't have political connections, her name
would still be on the list.
"For me, it was trauma," McPhee said. "What would it be for
people who don't speak English, for new immigrants, for people who don't have
the benefit of the education I have had? If this is America, this is a pretty
Over the last six months, government auditors have also questioned the quality
of the government's watch lists and whether the TSA is ready to roll out a long-delayed
replacement for the current airline passenger-screening system.
The TSA hopes the new system, dubbed Secure Flight, will reduce the number of
false positives by having the government, not the airlines, check passenger names
against an expanded watch list.
But that initiative too is drawing fire. On Friday, a TSA-appointed oversight
group comprising outside privacy and security experts released a damning report
(.pdf) on the agency. The findings included a recommendation that Congress prohibit
the testing of Secure Flight in the nation's airports until the secretary of
Homeland Security outlines key policy decisions about how the system will work
and protect privacy.
An earlier proposal, named CAPPS II, was killed
off after a series of revelations about secret data transfers from airlines
to the government and its contractors.
Secure Flight will use a unified list containing the names and dates of birth
of 120,000 to 160,000 people, according to recent government reports.
The Justice Department's top watchdog warned earlier this month, however, that
the Terrorist Screening Center -- which compiles the unified watch list -- had
to transfer its top person in charge of cleaning up the lists to working on
coordinating technologies with Secure Flight.
The TSA says it has hired more personnel and started new procedures to clear
up false positives, according to a Justice Department report
The TSA needs to improve its customer service and the quality of the watch-list
data, according to Marcia Hofmann, the EPIC staff counsel who filed the FOIA
"Certainly the accuracy of the watch list is going to (be) very important
as the TSA moves forward on Secure Flight," Hofmann said. "The Terrorist
Screening Center and the TSA have to make sure the data is of good-enough quality
to make important decisions about people, and if they cannot, then that raises
questions about whether this technique should be used for aviation security."