Buried in the transcripts of a congressional hearing that took place yesterday is fleeting mention of the federal government’s latest and perhaps most outrageous assault on privacy. If you take an inbound flight from overseas, and a suspected terrorist or supporter is flagged by automated name-check systems as being on the same flight—even if (and particularly if) that someone was denied boarding because they were on some no-fly list—the government regards you as connected with that terrorist, and runs a check on you and everyone else on the plane.
The program is called Kingfisher. It began two years ago to check foreign-born visa-applicants against ever-growing intelligence and biometrics databases, and then expanded to keep tabs on visa-holders even after they enter the country. Under Kingfisher, those names are constantly pinged against day-to-day intelligence traffic just in case something was missed or develops. But Kingfisher has also been quietly expanded again to permit checks of passengers (including American citizens) on inbound flights containing foreigners that the government regards as fishy.
The theory behind Kingfisher goes back 20-plus years, when two of the original World Trade Center bombers arrived together on the same flight at Kennedy airport, intentionally seated in separate sections of the plane. The musclemen on 9/11 arrived in the same manner. After 9/11, as everyone’s names taking international flights started going through computers, the terrorist-hunters began to wonder: What if we catch a bad guy coming in, but we don’t spot his buddy sitting four rows behind? So they built the capability to look at everyone on select planes.