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Air security agency riddled with puzzling errors

Three years and eight months after the terrorist attacks that changed our lives and after spending $4.5 billion on screening devices to monitor airports, seaports, mail and the air we breathe, the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged what many of us frequent fliers already suspected. The money was misspent on equipment that has failed to do the job.

As with most things governmental, failure does not mean having to try something else. It means spending more money on even more expensive equipment.

Among the problems associated with the current equipment, as detailed in last Sunday's New York Times, are devices used to screen airline passengers and their carry-on bags. Auditors have determined the likelihood of detecting a passenger trying to carry a gun or bomb on board is no greater now than before federal screeners replaced private screening companies. For this we are charged a tax on every airline ticket and forced to endure inconveniences in the name of safety.

I knew the system wasn't going to find real terrorists when I suddenly showed up on a no-fly list last year. I had to copy my passport and driver's license and submit other notarized documents to prove I am not the Thomas they are looking for. It wasn't until I wrote about it that my name was removed from the list.

My name is back on the list but on just three airlines. If I were a terrorist, wouldn't I try to smuggle a weapon aboard an airline that doesn't have me on their no-fly list?

Here's the way it works in this dysfunctional "security" system. Last weekend, I flew on one of the three airlines. The agent took my driver's license into the back and returned 15 minutes later, while other passengers sized me up to see if they dared travel with such a "suspect." When the agent returned, she brought with her a supervisor I had requested to see.

The supervisor explained he had to check with the airline's security office, using my birth date to confirm I am not the Thomas they are looking for. I asked, "Now that you know me, why can't you enter this information in your computer so the next time I fly your airline I am not inconvenienced by having to repeat this ridiculous procedure?" That makes too much sense. That can't be done. The agent smiled pleasantly, rejected my logical suggestion and appealed to his airline's rules.

The Transportation Security Administration has announced a new program, "Secure Flight," that requests birth dates from passengers. They claim this will speed passengers like me through the screening process. We'll see.

At Newark Airport last week, I spoke to a TSA supervisor about my mark of Cain. He gave me a special TSA number to call to register my complaint. I am wise to this tactic, having tried the number before, so I asked him to make the call. As he dialed, I said he could expect a recording to tell him to press one for English and then to leave a message. He would be promised a prompt reply, which he would not get.

He stayed on long enough to hear the press one for English message and hung up. He suggested I might try e-mailing TSA headquarters. I said I had, and I received an automated response also promising a prompt reply. I received no reply at all.

Airline agents blame TSA for this mess, and TSA agents blame the airlines. After listening to the blame game recently at Washington's Reagan National Airport, I took a TSA supervisor to the third airline that has me on its no-fly list. When she saw the TSA agent approach, the airline agent, who initially had blamed TSA, took me off the list and removed the "S" from the ticket that requires a full body and luggage search. This proves to me that TSA is the final authority.

Last month, I saw Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at a social function. I decided to go to the top and explain my problem, which other frequent travelers also experience. He took my card and promised to take care of it. He hasn't.

It isn't just me. A neighbor tells me she is frequently stopped for special screening because her last name is the same as a European city that was attacked by terrorists. But don't worry. The government is going to spend billions more on new equipment, while continuing its harassment of the innocent. Don't you feel safer?

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist and a host on Fox News Channel. Readers may leave e-mail at www.calthomas.com . His column appears on Tuesday and Thursday.