Grounded: The Government's Air Passenger Blacklist
Barbara Olshansky was in Newark International Airport last March when an airline agent at the counter checking her boarding pass called airport security. Olshansky was subjected to a close search and then, though she was in view of other travelers, was ordered to pull her pants down. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may have created a new era in airport security, but even so, she was embarrassed and annoyed.
Perhaps one such incident might've been forgotten, but Olshansky, the assistant legal director for the left-leaning Center for Constitutional Rights, was pulled out of line for special attention the next time she flew. And the next time. And the next time. On one flight this past September from Newark to Washington, six members of the center's staff, including Olshansky, were stopped and subjected to intense scrutiny, even though they had purchased their tickets independently and had not checked in as a group. On that occasion, Olshansky got angry and demanded to know why she had been singled out.
"The computer spit you out," she recalls the agent saying. "I don't know why, and I don't have time to talk to you about it.
Olshansky and her colleagues are, apparently, not alone. For months, rumors and anecdotes have circulated among left-wing and other activist groups about people who have been barred from flying or delayed at security gates because they are "on a list."
But now, a spokesman for the new Transportation Security Administration has acknowledged for the first time that the government has a list of about 1,000 people who are deemed "threats to aviation" and not allowed on airplanes under any circumstances. And in an interview with Salon, the official suggested that Olshansky and other political activists may be on a separate list that subjects them to strict scrutiny but allows them to fly.
"We have a list of about 1,000 people," said David Steigman, the TSA spokesman. The agency was created a year ago by Congress to handle transportation safety during the war on terror. "This list is composed of names that are provided to us by various government organizations like the FBI, CIA and INS We don't ask how they decide who to list. Each agency decides on its own who is a 'threat to aviation.'"
The agency has no guidelines to determine who gets on the list, Steigman says, and no procedures for getting off the list if someone is wrongfully on it.
Meanwhile, airport security personnel, citing lists that are provided by the agency and that appear to be on airline ticketing and check-in computers, seem to be netting mostly priests, elderly nuns, Green Party campaign operatives, left-wing journalists, right-wing activists and people affiliated with Arab or Arab-American groups.
Virgine Lawinger, a nun in Milwaukee and an activist with Peace Action was stopped from boarding a flight last spring to Washington, where she and 20 young students were planning to lobby the Wisconsin congressional delegation against U.S. military aid to the Colombian government. "We were all prevented from boarding, and some of us were taken to another room and questioned by airport security personnel and local sheriff's deputies," says Lawinger.
In that incident, an airline employee with Midwest Air and a localsheriff's deputy who had been called in during the incident to help airport security personnel detain and question the group, told some of them that their names were "on a list," and that they were being kept off their plane on instructions from the Transportation Security Administration in Washington. Lawinger has filed a freedom-of-information request with the Transportation Security Administration seeking to learn if she is on a "threat to aviation" list.
Last month, Rebecca Gordon and Jan Adams, two journalists with a San Francisco-based antiwar magazine called War Times were stopped at the check-in counter of ATA Airlines, where an airline clerk told them that her computer showed they were on "the FBI No Fly list." The airline called the FBI, and local police held them for a while before telling them there had been a mistake and that they were free to go. The two made their plane, but not before the counter attendant placed a large S for "search" on their baggage, assuring that they got more close scrutiny at the boarding gate.
Art dealer Doug Stuber, who ran Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential campaign in North Carolina in 2000, was barred last month from getting on a flight to Hamburg, Germany, where he was going on business, after he got engaged in a loud, though friendly, discussion with two other passengers in a security line. During the course of the debate, he shouted that "George Bush is as dumb as a rock," an unfortunate comment that provoked the Raleigh-Durham Airport security staff to call the local Secret Service bureau, which sent out two agents to interrogate Stuber.
"They took me into a room and questioned me all about my politics," Stuber recalls. "They were very up on Green Party politics, too." They fingerprinted him and took a digital eye scan. Particularly ominous, he says, was a loose-leaf binder held by the Secret Service agents. "It was open, and while they were questioning me, I discreetly looked at it," he says. "It had a long list of organizations, and I was able to recognize the Green Party, Greenpeace, EarthFirst and Amnesty International." Stuber was eventually released, but after trying for two days at various airports, Stuber found he was barred from boarding any flight and missed his business trip
A Secret Service agent at the agency's Washington headquarters confirmed that his agency had been called in to question Stuber. "We're not normally a part of the airport security operation," Agent Mark Connelly told Salon. "That's the FBI's job. But when one of our protection subjects gets threatened, we check it out." Asked about the list of organizations observed by Stuber, the Secret Service source speculated that those organizations might be on a list of organizations that the service, which is assigned the task of protecting the president, might need to monitor as part of its security responsibility.
Additional evidence suggests that Olshansky, Stuber and other left-leaning activists are also seen as a threat to aviation, though perhaps of a different grade. A top official for the Eagle Forum, an old-line conservative group led by anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, said several of the group's members have been delayed at security checkpoints for so long that they missed their flights. According to Pax Christi, a Catholic peace organization, an American member of the Falun Gong Chinese religious group was barred from getting back on a plane that had stopped in Iceland, reportedly based on information supplied to Icelandic customs by U.S. authorities. The person was reportedly permitted to fly onward on a later flight.
Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says his group has documented over 80 cases -- involving 200 people -- in which fliers with Arabic names have been delayed at the airport, or barred altogether from flying. Some, he says, appear to involve people who have no political involvement at all, and he speculated that they suffered the misfortune of having the same name as someone "on the list" for legitimate security reasons.
Until Steigman's confirmation of the no-fly list, the government had never admitted its existence. While FBI spokesman Paul Bresson confirmed existence of the list, officials at the CIA and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service declined to comment and referred inquiries back to the TSA. Details of how it was assembled and how it is being used by the government, airports and airlines are largely kept secret.
A security officer at United Airlines, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the airlines receive no-fly lists from the Transportation Security Administration but declined further comment,saying it was a security matter. A USAir spokeswoman, however, declined to comment, saying that the airline's security relationship with the federal transit agency was a security matter and that discussing it could "jeopardize passenger safety."
Steigman declined to say who was on the no-fly list, but he conceded that people like Lawinger, Stuber, Gordon, Adams and Olshansky were not "threats to aviation," because they were being allowed to fly after being interrogated and searched. But then, in a Byzantine twist, he raised the possibility that the security agency might have more than one list. "I checked with our security people," he said, "and they said there is no [second] list," he said. "Of course, that could mean one of two things: Either there is no second list, or there is a list and they're not going to talk about it for security reasons."
In fact, most of those who have been stopped from boarding flights(like Lawinger, Stuber, Gordon and Adams) were able to fly later. Obviously, if the TSA thought someone was a genuine "threat to aviation" -- like those on the 1,000-name no-fly list, they would simply be barred from flying. So does the agency have more than one list perhaps -- one for people who are totally barred from flying and another for people who are simply harassed and delayed?
Asked why the TSA would be barring a 74-year-old nun from flying, Steigman said: "I don't know. You could get on the list if you were arrested for a federal felony."
Sister Lawinger says she was arrested only once, back in the 1980s, for sitting down and refusing to leave the district office of a local congressman. And even then, she says, she was never officially charged or fined. But another person who was in the Peace Action delegation that day, Judith Williams, says she was arrested and spent three days in jail for a protest at the White House back in 1991. In that protest, Williams and other peace activists had scaled the White House perimeter fence and scattered baby dolls around the lawn to protest the bombing of Iraq. She says that the charge from that incident was a misdemeanor, an infraction that would not seem enough to establish her as a threat to aviation.
Inevitably, such questions about how one gets on a federal transit list creates questions about how to get off it. It is a classic -- and unnerving -- catch-22: Because the Transportation Security Administration says it compiles the list from names provided by other agencies, it has no procedure for correcting a problem. Aggrieved parties would have to go to the agency that first reported their names, but for security reasons, the TSA won't disclose which agency put someone on the list.
Bresson, the FBI spokesperson, would not explain the criteria for classifying someone as a threat to aviation, but suggests that fliers who believe they're on the list improperly should "report to airport security and they should be able to contact the TSA or us and get it cleared up." He concedes that might mean missed flights or other inconveniences. His explanation: "Airline security has gotten very complicated."
Many critics of the security agency's methods accept the need for heightened air security, but remain troubled the more Kafka-esque traits of the system. Waters, at the Eagle Forum, worries that the government has offered no explanation for how a "threat to aviation" is determined. "Maybe the people being stopped are already being profiled," she says. "If they're profiling people, what kind of things are they looking for? Whether you fit in in your neighborhood?"
"I agree that the government should be keeping known 'threats to aviation' off of planes," Ibish says. "I certainly don't want those people on my plane! But there has to be a procedure for appealing this, and there isn't. There are no safeguards and there is no recourse."
Meanwhile, nobody in the federal government has explained why so many law-abiding but mostly left-leaning political activists and antiwar activists are being harassed at check-in time at airports. "This allraises serious concerns about whether the government has made a decision to target Americans based on their political beliefs," says Katie Corrigan, an ACLU official. The ACLU has set up a No Fly List Complaint Form on its Web site.
One particular concern about the government's threat to aviation list and any other possible lists of people to be subjected to extra security investigation at airports is that names are being made available to private companies -- the airlines and airport authorities -- charged with alerting security personnel. Unlike most other law-enforcement watch lists, these lists are not being closely held within the national security or law-enforcement files and computers, but are apparently being widely dispersed.
"It's bad enough when the federal government has lists like this with no guidelines on how they're compiled or how to use them," says Olshansky at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "But when these lists are then given to the private sector, there are even less controls over how they are used or misused." Noting that airlines have "a free hand" to decide whether someone can board a plane or not, she says the result is a "tremendous chilling of the First Amendment right to travel and speak freely."
But Olshansky, alarmed by her own experience and the number of others reporting apparent political harassment, is fighting back. She says now that the government has confirmed the existence of a blacklist, her center is planning a First Amendment lawsuit against the federal government. CCR and has already signed up Lawinger, Stuber, and several others from Milwaukee's Peace Action group.