Robert Williams -- August, 2005 -- Brush with Fame

August 16, 2005. After we returned from Italy in July, Sarah posed the question on the DC Urban Moms mailing list, "How can we get Robert's name off the no-fly list?" This provoked Robert's somewhat anonymous brush with fame...

The short answer is you can't, more on that later. There were some good pointers and tips and helpful advice. And also a couple inquiries for more information from reporters. A reporter from the AP eventually caught up with Sarah (after we decided the story was a good one which should be told, and we agreed that Robert should remain "the 11 month old terror suspect." -- his name was not to used). A few weeks later, the story ran on the AP wire (8/15). And we were hounded. Actually, Sarah was hounded -- it was her quote on the wire and the story happened to hit on a Monday, when she was staying home.

The first TV call was the local Fox affiliate; as they were leaving, the local CBS affiliate showed up. The both did a good job of using the right quotes from Sarah (there are good people working hard at TSA, but the list is a silly idea) and not showing Robert's face or using his name. Robert's story led the Fox News at 10 that night ("Mother of Suspect Infant") and was in the second segment of CBS's 11pm newscast. And the CBS station has a relationship with CNN so the story ran there off and on all day. There were radio shows and more TV requests that evening and the next day. We declined to bring Robert to CNN's DC studio for a live interview with Wolf Blitzer and they decided without Robert they would pass.

For me, one of the oddest requests was from NBC; the Today show was going to have another mother and child who ran into the no-fly list, but wanted a still photo of us to show another family as an example. They just asked for an emailed photo. The odd part: that was not an option -- certainly not common enough to just assume it could be done -- when I was working in the TV news business. It turned out we did not have a photo of the two of us without Robert, so we took the one below.

August 16, 2005. August 16, 2005.
Getting off the no fly list: Can't be done. There is someone who shares Robert's name (or some portion of it) that a law enforcement group believes to be a threat. As long as the list remains in use, that name will likely be on it. One of my favorite security authors, Bruce Schneier has written a lot about the problems with this system. I won't repeat them here, I just hope it goes away in the foreseeable future. August 17, 2005.

What can be done is have Robert added to the "cleared" portion of the list. But there's a catch: to do that we need 3 of the following:

  • Passport
  • Birth Certificate
  • Visa
  • Naturalization Certificate
  • Voter Registration Card
  • Driver's License
  • Government Identity Card
  • Military Identity Card
The most we'll have for many years is two (passport and birth certificate). We've been told that the airlines can waive the watch list requirements for kids obviously under 12 years old. But that could leave Robert in the very slow travel lane with extra searches for several years before he gets the third form of ID required.

Sarah sent this email to family and friends:

Hi all,

Just a follow up on the media frenzy surrounding young Robert's suspected terrorist status... in addition to the links below, I also received e-mails from a friend in Thailand who had seen the story, and from other friends who sent links to papers in Sydney, Italy, China, the BBC, Canada etc. Tony and Anne take the prize for most obscure location from which they caught the news. They 'IM'd" me from a cruise ship off of Brazil saying they'd seen it on CNN; (On a CRUISE SHIP!??) Yikes. Others reported spewing out their breakfasts as the story was recounted during the 'strange facts of the day' interlude on NPR.

In other news, we turned down interviews with CNN with Wolf Blitzer ("But we'll send a car for you," whined the production assistant.), MSNBC and the Today show too because they were not willing to omit Robert's name and face from the story. I did tell them that the other DC area mom was willing to bring her kid on camera so they should approach her instead. I'll let you know if I decide to go through with The Daily Show or not. They seem more reasonable and said they'd respect the no-name, no face on camera for Robert restriction David and I put on the whole media thing.

But the whole point of this exercise, which was to find a way to get Robert off the no-fly list, does look like it's moving forward. I faxed a copy of the USAToday story to my Congressman along with the TSA-PIVD (Personal Identity Verification Document) and explained why it was neither possible nor desirable to fill it out. (Robert doesn't have three forms of approved ID, I do not want to notarize copies of what he does have to send in, and I do not want to fill out what looks suspiciously like a RAP sheet on my baby because that feels a little too "guilty until proven innocent" to me. -Required information includes physical descriptions, lists of unique birthmarks, etc.) After all that, he would still be on the list, but he'd just be able to get through security more quickly.

I made the case that providing Robert's name, social security # and birth date should be sufficient to clear him until he actually does anything (heaven forbid) to earn a place on any kind of suspect list.

David and I feel that while it was amusing for him to be stopped as an infant, that it's a very different matter if he were to be accosted while traveling alone as a teenager. As a mother, I worry that he might be taken away and questioned someday and that I wouldn't know where he was or how to help him.

Some might disagree with me but I do not believe that being safe and free in this society are mutually exclusive. And while I do feel I'm a patriot and firm believer in Democracy I also can't say that I particularly trust this administration in general and the TSA/Homeland Security/& assorted contractors in particular to handle personal data in a secure and legal way. (That said, I do acknowledge that individuals within the TSA and other agencies are working very very hard with the best intentions to try and keep us all safe.)

I think the London bombings and continued threats illustrate the need to maintain vigilance in protecting public safety but, as David W. pointed out, how long will any one continue to pay attention to a system that cries wolf so very often. The names-based airline passenger system isn't working so clearly it was time to urge the powers that be to use their resources in more effective ways. One of David's favorite security authors, Bruce Schneier has written a lot about the problems with this system. I won't repeat them here, I just hope it goes away in the foreseeable future.

For your amusement a news summary appears below. I have skipped the hundreds of regional papers that also carried the story. And yes, that was me being replayed on KGO News radio San Francisco, San Diego, Denver and Boston. Also, because I accidentally 'scooped' the initial reporter who contacted me to tell the story (subsequently getting him in trouble with his boss when another reporter broke it to the AP) I did give some follow up interviews to Mike McAullife of the New York Daily News. That may run in the next day or so, or they may save it for September when some homeland security issues come up again in the House of Reps.

The media memory being what it is, chances are the media frenzy is now over. Now we look forward into gleefully retiring back into our private lives and hopefully getting Robert off the terrorist watch list forever.

- SZap, DW and Robert.

Sarah's version of the story, "Baby Grounded," was published by Brain, Child magazine; for another version of the story "Babies Caught up in No-Fly Confusion:" Click on the USAToday link below.

    Partial List of Media Hits -- International
  • Pakistan Daily Times
  • BBC World Service: 'Babies hit' by terror flight ban.'
  • THE TIMES OF INDIA: Sorry baby, You Cannot Fly.
  •, Qatar
  • People's Daily Online, China
  • Singapore: Halt, we've to check if baby is a terrorist
  • Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
  • Melbourne Herald Sun, Australia
  • Guardian Unlimited, UK
  • London Free Press, Canada
  • Vive Le Canada, Canada
  • Globe and Mail, Canada
  • Ottawa Sun, Canada
Selected National Print
  • USA Today
  • Boston Globe
  • Detroit Free Press,
  • San Francisco Chronicle, CA
  • San Francisco Examiner, CA
  • Los Angeles Times, CA
  • Sacramento Bee, CA
  • Contra Costa Times, CA
  • Monterey County Herald, CA
  • San Jose Mercury News, CA
  • Houston Chronicle, TX
  • Baltimore Sun, MD
  • Chicago Tribune, IL
  • Chicago Sun-Times, IL
  • New York Newsday, NY
  • New York Sun, NY
  • Seattle Times, WA
  • Seattle Post Intelligencer, WA
  • King County Journal, WA
  • The Olympian, WA
  • Pittsburgh Post Gazette, PA
  • Arizona Daily Sun, AZ
  • Miami Herald, FL
  • Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, FL
  • Tallahassee Democrat, FL
  • Biloxi Sun Herald, MI
  • Macon Telegraph, GA
    • WHO-TV, IA
    • CBC Toronto, Canada
    • CNN
    • CNN International
    • CRI, China (China International Radio Online)
    • MSNBC
    • KUTV, UT
    •, MI
    • KFMB, CA
    • WVLT, TN
    • NBC4.TV, CA
    • KCRA-TV, CA
    •, CA
    • NBC, DC
    • NBC, NC
    •, NC
    • WXIA-TV, GA
    •, GA
    •, IL
    • NBC, PA
    •, FL
    •, FL
    •, FL
    •, CO
    • CBS New York,
    • CBS 5, CA
    • KABC, CA
    •, NC
    •, TX
    • KCEN-TV, TX
    • Hawaii, HI
    •, PA
    • WMTW, ME
    • WNNE-TV, VT
    • WJLA, DC
  • Robert Becker Links: