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Are You on the Government's 'No Fly' List?

A new book reveals how thousands of Americans who do not fit a terrorist profile are routinely harassed and detained at the airport.
 
 
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The following excerpt is from Naomi Wolf's latest book, End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007) and is used by permission of the publisher. In this timely call to arms, Wolf compels us to face the way our freedoms are under assault, and that each of the ten classic steps used by dictators to close down open societies are underway in the United States today.

ARBITRARILY DETAIN and RELEASE CITIZENS

The Press Department of the Foreign Ministry judged that ... I was urging the "spread of counterrevolutionary developments in the GDR." Because of the role I was clearly playing "in the ideological war of imperialist media against the GDR" I should be placed on the list ... -- Timothy Garton Ash

Protest has been lively in our nation throughout most of our history because being free means that you can't be detained arbitrarily. We have also felt free in the security of our homes, believing that the state can't break in and go through our possessions. All that is changing.

The List

In 2002, I began to notice that almost every time I sought to board a domestic airline flight, I was called aside by the Transportation Security Administration and given a more thorough search. When this was happening on nine flights out of ten, I asked the officials about the special search. They told me that the search was due to the quadruple "S" that routinely came up on my boarding pass. There are several reasons why one might receive a quadruple "S" on one's boarding pass if one doesn't fit a terrorist profile: buying a ticket at the last minute, for instance, or paying in cash. But those circumstances didn't apply to me. I kept asking, but not getting real answers.

This stepped-up search became so routine as I traveled that companions who were flying with me began to simply say, "I'll meet you at the gate," even before we got through the security line.

On yet another preboarding search, I asked yet again. The TSA agent searching me, a young woman, said pleasantly, "You're on the list."

"The list?" I asked. "What list?" Her supervisor abruptly ended our exchange, took over from her, and then moved me on.

Indeed, the TSA Administration does keep a "list." The American citizens on the list who do not fit a terrorist profile range from journalists and academics who have criticized the White House to activists and even political leaders who have also spoken out.

These TSA searches and releases would be trivial in a working democracy. In the 1960s, peace activists found it merely irksome to be trailed by FBI agents, and in the 1980s those who organized The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) on college campuses were even amused sometimes to find, on submitting a Freedom of Information Act request, that there was a file open on them. But once the first steps in a fascist shift are in place, being on "the list" is not really funny any more.

When you are physically detained by armed agents because of something that you said or wrote, it has an impact. On the one hand, during these heightened searches of my luggage, I knew I was a very small fish in a very big pond. On the other hand, you get it right away that the state is tracking your journeys, can redirect you physically, and can have armed men and women, who may or may not answer your questions, search and release you.

Our faith in nonarbitrary "safe" detention helps to make us Americans. When I was twenty, I joined a group of graduate students who traveled from Oxford to London to get arrested. We all went over to the American embassy: There we sat, self-consciously, on the chilly concrete steps, with our "U.S. OUT OF EL SALVADOR" banner unfurled on our knees. A police van arrived. Bored British police officers took us away. We were locked up for a few hours and then, of course, released.

"Silly season," one of the bobbies commented civilly as he signed the paperwork that let us go. I wasn't scared to speak out because I was in a democracy and the rule of law protected me.

That kind of experience of accountable detention and release is eroding in America. Activists are not being beaten. But they are being watched, and sometimes intimidatingly detained and released.

In America, people are not supposed to be detained because of their political beliefs. But Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, the liberal senator from Massachusetts who is a thorn in the side of the Bush administration, was detained five times in East Coast airports in March, 2004. Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia has also been subjected to extra security measures.

On September 21, 2004, U.S. security officials diverted to Bangor, Maine, a United Airlines flight from London to Washington D.C. On board was Usef Islam, once known as the singer Cat Stevens. Customs and Border Protection agents questioned him on "national security grounds." Most Americans associate Cat Stevens not with bomb-building in al-Qaeda training camps, but with slowdancing to "Wild World" in suburban rec rooms. Islam's detention helps "blur the line"-- he is "one of us."

Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon, American peace activists, tried to check in at the San Francisco airport for a trip to Boston in August 2002. Airport personnel who said that these middle-aged women were on the "master list" called the police and notified the FBI. At least twenty other peace activists are confirmed to be on the list: A 74-year-old Catholic nun who works for peace was detained in Milwaukee; Nancy Oden, a leader of the Green Party, was prevented from flying from Maine to Chicago.

Free speech advocates are on the list: King Downing of the ACLU was detained in the Boston airport in 2003. David Fathi, also of the ACLU, was detained as well. Scholars who defend the Constitution are on the list: in 2007, Professor Walter F. Murphy, emeritus of Princeton, one of the nation's foremost Constitutional scholars, who had recently spoken critically of Bush's assault on the Constitution, was detained for being on a "watch list." A TSA official confirmed informally that it was probably because Murphy had criticized the President, and warned him that his luggage would be ransacked.

In 2005, "Evo Morales"-- which is the name of the President of Bolivia, who has criticized Bush-appeared on the list, beside President Morales' birthdate. After Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, gave a speech at the United Nations criticizing Bush, Chavez's foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, was detained at Kennedy Airport. When Maduro explained that he was Venezuela's foreign minister, he said that officers "threatened and shoved" him. According to President Chavez, the officers accused Maduro of participating in terrorist acts. The chilling effect from this last example could be profound: Any staffer of any foreign government or international regulatory body can be detained.

Now, there are tens of thousands of people on the list.

Where did the list come from? In 2003, President Bush had the intelligence agencies and the FBI create a "watch list" of people thought to have terrorist intentions or contacts. These agencies gave the list to the TSA and the commercial airlines. 60 Minutes got one copy of the list: It was 540 pages long. That list of people to be taken aside for extra screening had 75,000 names on it.

The more stringent "no-fly list" had 45,000 names; before 9/11 there were just 16 names. The list is so secret that even Congresspeople have been prevented from looking at it. People on the list endure searches that can last for hours. One American citizen, Robert Johnson, described "the humiliation factor" of being strip-searched: "I had to take off my pants. I had to take off my sneakers, then I had to take off my socks. I was treated like a criminal." Donna Bucella, who was at that time head of the FBI program that oversaw the list, told 60 Minutes , "Well, Robert Johnson will never get off the list."

On December 6, 2006, Democrats in Congress tried to find out more about recent reports that the Department of Homeland Security "was using a scoring system" that rated the dangers posed by people crossing American borders. The Democrats were worried that these lists did not simply keep people from flying-they could keep them from getting jobs as well.

According to the New York Times , Vermont Senator Patrick J. Leahy said that "the program and broader government data-mining efforts could make it more difficult for innocent Americans to travel or to get a job -- without giving them the chance to know why they were labeled a security risk." So now there is not just the anxiety that you might be detained-you could also, if you are on certain secret lists, be turned down for a job and never know why.

Being on the list can get also get some people detained and tortured -- although they are innocent.

Maher Arar is a Canadian citizen, a software consultant, husband, and father -- a North American yuppie. The United States detained Arar when he was changing planes at Kennedy Airport in 2002. He was "rendered" to Syria. Security forces there kept him in prison for over a year, beating him repeatedly with a heavy metal cable. The Canadian government pursued a two-year investigation and concluded that it had all been a terrible mistake -- Arar actually had no ties to terrorists whatsoever. Canadians were so appalled by this miscarriage of justice that the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police resigned. After he was released with his government's help, Arar, emboldened perhaps by living in a working North American democracy, sued the U.S. government.

The Bush administration refused to concede that it had been wrong; refused to provide documents or witnesses to the Canadian investigators; and finally announced in January 2007 that they had "secret information" that justified keeping Arar on the list.

So Arar, a North American citizen like you or me, has to live in fear, perhaps for the rest of his life (his CCR lawyer says he suffers from post-traumatic stress): Arar turns down offers to receive honors overseas, for whenever he travels -- if he dares to -- over borders, he fears being taken off the plane or train, shipped to another country and subjected to torture again.

Making it more difficult for people out of favor with the state to travel back and forth across borders is a classic part of the fascist playbook. As Nazi Germany closed down, borders tightened and families fleeing internment were traumatized by the uncertainties that they knew they faced at the borders. When reporter Timothy Garton Ash published essays that offended the Stasi, he was forbidden to re-enter the GDR. The United States has recently been refusing visas to various respected Muslim scholars from universities such as Oxford -- scholars with no ties whatsoever to terrorists -- because they have been critical of U.S. policy. This has happened before in America: in the 1950s the FBI confiscated the passports of intellectuals and journalists who had been critical of anticommunist witch hunts.

William Shirer described the tension of airport searches of suspect individuals -- reporters -- in Berlin in 1938:

Hans Kaltenborn, our star foreign news commentator, was turned back by the secret police when he arrived at Tempelhof [airport] from London this afternoon. ... I became suspicious when the passport officials continued to hold him after all the other passengers had been cleared. ... [Kaltenborn's] German relatives, who were exposing themselves to possible arrest by merely being there, remained bravely at the rail. I finally complained to a Gestapo man about keeping us standing so long. ... [A] Gestapo officer came up and announced that Hans would be taking the six o'clock plane back to London.

"Why, he's just come from there," I spoke up.

"And he's returning there now," the officer said.

"May I ask why?" Hans said, boiling inside but cool outside, though beads of sweat bubbled out on his forehead.

The officer had a ready answer: Looking in his notebook, he said with tremendous seriousness: "Herr Kaltenborn, on such and such a date in Oklahoma City, you made a speech insulting the Furhrer."

"Let me see the text of that, please," Hans spoke up. But you do not argue with the Gestapo. ... Hans was hustled out. ... Then he disappeared.

Are the cases we hear of Americans being caught up in detention, searches, and releases merely Homeland Security or TSA zealotry? Or are the stories effective PR about a new reality? Fascist propagandists target individuals, detain and release them, and then publicize the stories. Could all these -- Bensman the fish defender and Cat Stevens the balladeer and the little elderly nun and the lady peace activists -- be victims not of simple clumsiness but, rather, examples of the fact that perfectly ordinary Americans can now get entangled in the increasingly punitive apparatus of the state?

Could what happened to Maher Arar happen to a U.S. citizen? Chaplain James Yee was arrested and investigated on suspicion of "espionage and possibly treason" on September 10, 2003. It is not widely reported that he had also spoken up on behalf of better treatment for the detainees in Guantánamo. Military officials claimed that Yee had classified documents that included diagrams of cells at Guantánamo and lists of detainees. He was also said to have "ties to [radical Muslims in the U.S.]."

Chaplain Yee was taken to a navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina, and interrogated. He was blindfolded; his ears were blocked; he was manacled and then put into solitary confinement for seventy-six days; forbidden mail, television, or anything to read except the Koran. His family was not allowed to visit him. He was demonized on TV, radio, and the Internet and accused of being an operative in "a supposed spy ring that aimed to pass secrets to al- Qaeda from suspected terrorists held at Guantánamo. ... Court papers said he would be charged with espionage, spying, aiding the enemy, mutiny or sedition, and disobeying an order." Chaplain Yee, born in New Jersey and raised a Lutheran before he converted to Islam, was baffled at the accusations. His lawyers were told he could face execution.Within six months, the U.S. government had dropped all criminal charges against Yee. But the government said it did so to avoid making its sensitive evidence public, not because Yee is innocent.

Yee was released -- but charged with what looked like punitive "Mickey Mouse" charges: "adultery, lying to investigators and two counts of downloading porn." In the presence of his humiliated wife and his four-year-old daughter, military prosecutors compelled Navy Lt . Karyn Wallace to testify about their extramarital affair. The military rarely prosecutes adultery. The government never presented the evidence on which it based its first accusations against Yee. But after Yee was set free, he was placed "under a new Army order not to talk about his ordeal in any way that might be seen as critical to the military." If he says anything negative about what happened to him, he faces further prosecution.

(In 2007, Lieutenant Colonel William H. Steele, who like Chaplain Yee has spoken up for a more humane situation for the detainees, would also find himself accused of "aiding the enemy," for various charges, and facing possible execution.)

So in Yee's case a United States citizen innocent of the initial charges was kept in solitary confinement, this time for 76 days. His name was destroyed, his family humiliated-and he can't talk about it or he will be arrested again.

On July 24, 2006, Chaplain Yee said he had been detained once again, this time at the Canadian border as he was trying to come home after a trip to Vancouver to see a performance. Yee was questioned for two hours. You can imagine how that "Come with us" might have felt.

In Germany, by 1933, arbitrary arrest and release was common. On November, 27, 1938, two police officers came to Victor Klemperer's house to search for weapons. As they ransacked the possessions of the two middle-aged German Jews, Mrs. Klemperer made the mistake of asking them not to go through the linen cupboard with unwashed hands. Professor Klemperer was taken into custody and released: "[A]t four o'clock I was on the street with the curious feeling, free-but for how long?" (In 1941, Klemperer would spend eight days in prison for forgetting to close the curtains on his windows for the blackout.)

The charges against those taken into custody and then released were often vague and uncontestable. In a survey of German citizens who had lived through that era, 36 percent reported having been arrested, questioned, and released. A well-known Cologne priest who was outspoken about the Nazis was arrested and released repeatedly. As the 1930s progressed hundreds of thousands of German citizens were arbitrarily detained and released. General Pinochet used this tactic too: Every so often the military would enter a slum, arrest people in random sweeps, keep them behind bars briefly, and then let them go. The only real reason was to intimidate the population.

Naomi Wolf is the author of 'The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot' (Chelsea Green, 2007).

 
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