Big Brother's No-Fly List

Revolutionary Worker #1210, August 17, 2003, posted at

"Someone must have told on Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."

-- Franz Kafka, The Trial

"Since June 2002, I have flown various airlines and each time I have almost been denied boarding, ticket agents and security personnel informing me that my name is on their no-fly list. And each time I have been embarrassed and even humiliated by those staff people who interrogate me, call supervisors and airport security before they finally believe that I am who I am, a 71- year-old grey-haired American-born English teacher."

-- letter to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

"Could you imagine if you were stopped, questioned for over an hour and almost missing a plane because the name `Quinn' was in the computer?"

-- from a letter to a congressman from an airline pilot who is an American citizen with a common Pakistani surname

"I've endured too many security checks for this to be `just a random search' -- this is harassment. I am a 62-year-old Caucasian grandmother and law-abiding citizen."

-- letter to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

Asif Iqbal, a Rochester, New York, management consultant, must get FBI clearance every Monday and Thursday when he flies to and from Syracuse for business. Iqbal can't get off a government watch list because he shares the same name as someone the U.S. considers a suspected terrorist. But Asif Iqbal, the "suspected terrorist," is eight years younger than his Rochester namesake. What's more, the suspected terrorist Iqbal has been in U.S. custody at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since January 2002 after he was captured in Afghanistan.

These are just a few of the numerous examples of humiliating harrassment of airline passengers flagged by government "no-fly lists" since September 11, 2001. Recently, requests under the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have revealed that thousands of U.S. airline passengers have been detained after their names appeared on such lists.

The exact number of people who have been detained is not known because the government does not keep track--because "there is no pressing need to do so," according to documents. However a memo by the TSA released to the ACLU said that the agency was receiving about 30 calls daily-- or nearly 11,000 a year --about people being stopped because of the no-fly lists. According to the documents at least 339 people have been detained at San Francisco International Airport alone.

And the lists are getting longer. "The FAA/TSA `watchlist' has expanded almost daily," according to an internal TSA memo dated Oct. 16, 2002.

There is a Kafkaesque quality to the government's procedures with the lists--where people are confronted with a confusing, secretive Big Brother bureaucracy. The government denied that any lists existed until last fall. It still refuses to confirm or deny that anyone's name appears on a list. The criteria for getting on the list is secret and there is no procedure for getting your name cleared if you suspect that it appears on the list.

The documents released by the TSA include scores of letters by people detained or congresspeople writing on their behalf. All of the travelers complained about the inability to clear their names from the list. One person said government officials suggested he change his name!

It even seems that having national security clearance doesn't help. Lawyers for a company called Syracuse Research wrote Congressman James T. Walsh on behalf of an employee who has "top- secret security clearance" and frequently flies from Syracuse to Washington, DC "to conduct business at the Pentagon." But the employee has difficulty getting cleared to fly since he shares the same last name and birth year as someone on the watch list. The company's law firm sent two letters directly to the TSA in May and September of 2002, but is still awaiting a response from the agency according to their attorney.

Censored Documents

Last year Congress passed the Aviation Transportation Security Act, creating the Transportation Security Administration (which will eventually become part of the Homeland Security Department). The TSA is in charge of security for all commercial transportation within the U.S. It has been given millions of dollars for sophisticated systems to prescreen bags and people .

There is now a federal security director at all the major airports, and airport screeners--of which there are to be 29,000 eventually--are all federal employees. To meet its staffing demands the TSA is recruiting heavily from other federal agencies like the FBI and Border Patrol. The Washington Post reported that the Border Patrol "expects to lose at least 20 percent of its officers this fiscal year, most of them to the TSA."

The newly released documents revealed that there are not one but two lists. The first list, called the "no-fly" list, requires the ticketing agent to call law enforcement agents if a match is made. In the case of a name match against the "selectee" list, the passenger's boarding pass is prominently marked with an "S," resulting in increased scrutiny by airport screeners.

The ACLU says a list kept by security personnel at Oakland airport ran to 88 pages. More than 300 people have been subject to special questioning at San Francisco airport, and another 24 at Oakland, according to police records. In no case does it appear that a wanted criminal was apprehended.

Portions of the memo, which said what criteria was used for each list, which agencies contributed names to the lists and how many people were on each list, were censored. In fact most of the pages were almost completely redacted (inked-out).

"What the government is saying essentially is, `We're not going to give you even basic information about the list even though it has resulted in the stopping and questioning of potentially thousands of innocent Americans,'" said Jayashri Srikantiah, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

Political Repression and "Flying While Arab"

There are indications that people are being placed on the lists because of their political activity or ethnicity. The ACLU's Freedom of Information Act request grew out of the detention of two journalists with the anti-war newspaper War Times.And there are many other incidents. For example:

Meanwhile the term "Flying While Arab" has joined "Driving While Black" in the American vocabulary. In June 2002, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee filed suit against three airlines on behalf of five Arab men who were pulled off of planes because of their ethnicity. The ADC reported that they had received over 60 complaints of such incidents in six months.

Such blatant racial profiling is being upheld by the government. "Someone who comes in, who's got a diaper on his head, and a fan belt wrapped around that diaper on his head--that guy needs to be pulled over," Republican Congressman John Cooksey said on a Louisiana radio station. Perhaps Cooksey needs a diaper on his mouth.


Recognizing the somewhat clumsy nature of their current screening system, the TSA said they are developing a new screening system, dubbed CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre- screening Program). Many of the details of the new program are being kept secret.

As part of the new system, in January 2003 the TSA published a Federal Register notice announcing that the agency would create a new system called the Aviation Security Screening Records (ASSR) database. The system would link together information from the airlines on all airline passengers with all sorts of private information from credit reports, credit card purchases, FBI files, arrest reports, job history, DMV records etc. Much of this information was previously considered private information that the government could not collect without a search warrant and probable cause.

CAPPS II would use a formula to assess the security risk of every single airlines passenger based on the information in the database. Each passenger would then be assigned a code: green for OK, yellow for requiring additional screening, or red for "do not fly."

Citing the inaccuracy of much of the information that the government will rely on (such as credit reports) EPIC attorney David Sobel said, "We will see an exponential increase in the number of people who will encounter these problems."

The TSA claims its mission is "to ensure freedom of movement." But its real aim is to monitor and regulate people's movements within the borders of the U.S. They want people to quietly accept such sophisticated and massive profiling systems as necessary measures in the name of "safety" and "fighting terrorism." In fact, these programs are a huge assault on people's civil liberties and only leave people more vulnerable to the clutches of the world's biggest terrorist: the U.S. government.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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