The Political Prospects of a “No-Ride List”

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Walk into Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, and you’ll find security precautions all around you. Police officers wander slowly through the terminal with bomb-sniffing dogs. Looped videos show what you should look out for (which is, apparently, shifty-eyed people studying the architecture of the building and taking notes). And as you board, your ticket is checked and later rechecked.

Still, the security procedures are a far cry from those at airports. But following evidence gathered from bin Laden’s compound that reportedly shows al-Qaeda planned to target U.S. rail, New York Senator Chuck Schumer proposed instituting a “no-ride list” for rail travelers who, after being cross-checked with a terrorist watch list, could be banned from getting aboard. (Schumer’s announcement came on Sunday, and for his part, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Monday, “For now, riding trains is safe.”)

A “no-ride list” would, of course, be akin to the “no-fly list,” a roster of people who can be denied passage on airplanes or put through enhanced security measures. “We can do exactly the same for Amtrak at virtually no extra cost,” Schumer said. (He mentions Amtrak because ID is already required for purchasing those tickets, while subway systems and many commuter rails do not screen passengers in that way.)

Schumer might be right that there’s little financial cost, but there would still be some political pains. The ACLU, which has filed suits against the government for violating “airline passengers’ constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and their right to due process,” has similarly uncomfortable feelings about the no-ride list. “We’re really dismayed to see a list that’s secret and based on secret standards move out of the aviation context and [potentially] into travel on trains,” says ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese. “These lists are fraught with problems.”

Chief among them, according to the ACLU, are cases of mistaken identity, where people who share a name with someone on the list are wrongfully detained or where people have their names put on the list mistakenly. Calabrese says these problems “dilute whatever limited efficacy [the lists] have” and that the ACLU would certainly lobby against any no-ride bill that’s introduced.

The ACLU wouldn’t be alone in their objections. There are countless no-fly-list articles filled with stories of people making it on planes who shouldn’t have, and vice versa. There are tales of people not getting any explanation why they were put on the list and stories of people having difficultly getting their names scrubbed from it.  This is from an FBI FAQ list:

I have been told that I am on a terrorist watchlist by an airline employee and I frequently have difficulty when I fly. Does this mean I am in the [Terrorist Screening Database]?

No; however, an individual may be a “misidentified person.” A misidentified person is someone who is experiencing a delay during screening because they have a similar name to a person in the TSDB. Misidentified persons are sometimes delayed while the government works to distinguish them from the terrorist in the TSDB.

“This could get much worse,” one man wrote to The New York Times in 2008, following a story about children being detained because they had names similar to those on the watch list. “Within a few years, we are likely to have some sort of national identification system, and the government will be able to check the names of everyone boarding a train or bus; will we then have no-ride rules also? I do not know if this system is unconstitutional, but it is certainly unfair and un-American. Big Brother is watching us, and he cannot see straight.”

Amtrak is hedging its bets, expressing support for security while including caveats about privacy. John O’Connor, chief of the Amtrak police, tells TIME, “All countermeasures add value in creating an overall security posture in protecting a rail system that operates in an open environment. The creation of a “do not ride” list is no exception.” He adds, “It would, however, have to be developed in close coordination with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and implemented in a way that respects civil rights and allows for the rapid flow of persons and trains, necessary for effective mass transit.”

Of course, the no-ride list is nothing more than an idea at this point. So far Schumer has only used verbs like pushing for and calling on and urged — in other words, he hasn’t said he plans to introduce actual legislation. But we can expect some rousing debates if he does.

Schumer’s office did not return request for comment.