WASHINGTON – A gap in the airline passenger-check system permitted a man suspected of having terrorist ties to board a London-to-Washington flight despite being on a no-fly list, a Bush administration official said Thursday.
The incident involving Yusuf Islam (search), formerly known as singer Cat Stevens (search), dramatizes a need for changes to tighten the system, said Asa Hutchinson (search), under secretary for homeland security.
"Right now, under the rules we get the information (about passenger boardings) at Homeland Security, I believe it's 15 minutes after the plane takes off," Hutchinson said.
"There's a gap there, so obviously the rules have to be changed" governing the comparison of passenger names with a watch list of people suspected of terrorist links, Hutchinson acknowledged in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."
He said the rules need to be changed to permit federal authorities to review passenger lists, particularly for international flights, at least an hour before a plane takes off and said U.S. officials will be working with their counterparts internationally to get that done.
His Homeland Security Department (search) had said Wednesday that the incident involving Islam — in which his plane was diverted to Bangor, Maine, and he was intercepted by federal agents — demonstrates why the government should take over the screening responsibility from the airlines.
"This is a good example of the need for the government to manage the lists, as recommended in the 9-11 commission report," said Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy.
In July, the Sept. 11 commission issued a report that said airlines can only check names against "no fly" lists — people the government believes "pose a direct threat to aviation."
The government maintains a much larger set of watch lists, but those aren't used because of concerns about sharing information with private companies and foreign countries.
Still, Yusuf's name was on the no-fly list that United Airlines employees were supposed to check.
United spokesman Jeff Green said the airline followed procedures in checking Islam's name, and it wasn't on the list.
"The information did not match," Green said.
Islam returned to London early Thursday. "I'm totally shocked," he said upon arrival at the airport. "Half of me wants to smile, and half of me wants to growl. The whole thing is totally ridiculous. Everybody knows who I am. I am no secret figure. Everybody knows my campaigning for charity, for peace."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw complained Wednesday to U.S. officials their treatment of Islam, telling Secretary of State Colin Powell "that this action should not have been taken," the Foreign Office confirmed.
United and the U.S. government say they're working together to figure out what happened. It's possible Islam's name was spelled differently on the list, Homeland Security officials conceded.
United's Flight 919 was en route to Washington Dulles International Airport on Tuesday when U.S. officials reviewing the passenger list discovered Islam was aboard. The aircraft was diverted to Maine's Bangor International Airport, where federal agents met the plane and interviewed Islam.
Under rules imposed following the Sept. 11 attacks, once an international flight is bound for the United States, passenger information is forwarded to U.S. officials. The amount of data varies, but can include name, address, flight details, seat location, form of payment and meal preference.
U.S. authorities use the information to run a more thorough check against government watch lists. That's when authorities discovered that Islam was on the plane.
Unlike airline workers, law enforcement officers are trained to look for names that sound like those on the watch list or are spelled differently than the ones on the watch list, Homeland Security spokesman Garrison Courtney said.
The Transportation Security Administration (search), which is part of the Homeland Security Department, announced plans Tuesday to take over the task of checking names against watch lists before passengers get on planes. The agency is developing a computerized system that will compare passenger data with the watch lists for domestic flights only.
U.S. authorities provided few details about Islam's alleged connection to terrorism.
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Doyle would only say that the intelligence community has recently obtained information that "further heightens concern" about Islam.
"Yusuf Islam has been placed on the watch lists because of activities that could potentially be related to terrorism," Doyle said. "It's a serious matter."
A second government official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.S. authorities think donations from Islam may have ended up helping to fund blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, convicted for a plot to bomb New York City landmarks, and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States.
Islam, born Stephen Georgiou, took Cat Stevens as a stage name and had a string of hits in the 1960s and '70s, including "Wild World" and "Morning Has Broken." Last year he released two songs, including a re-recording of his hit "Peace Train," to express his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
He abandoned his music career in the late 1970s after converting to Islam.
While in Washington in May, Islam met with officials of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (search) "to talk about philanthropic work," according to White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan, who said the meeting occurred before Islam was added to the no-fly list.