A federal "No Fly" list, intended to keep terrorists from boarding planes,
is snaring peace activists at San Francisco International and other U. S. airports,
triggering complaints that civil liberties are being trampled.
And while several federal agencies acknowledge that they contribute names to
the congressionally mandated list, none of them, when contacted by The Chronicle,
could or would say which agency is responsible for managing the list.
One detainment forced a group of 20 Wisconsin anti-war activists to miss their
flight, delaying their trip to meet with congressional representatives by a day.
That case and others are raising questions about the criteria federal authorities
use to place people on the list -- and whether people who exercise their constitutional
right to dissent are being lumped together with terrorists.
"What's scariest to me is that there could be this gross interruption of civil
rights and nobody is really in charge," said Sarah Backus, an organizer of the
Wisconsin group. "That's really 1984-ish."
Federal law enforcement officials deny targeting dissidents. They suggested
that the activists were stopped not because their names are on the list, but because
their names resemble those of suspected criminals or terrorists.
Congress mandated the list as part of last year's Aviation and Transportation
Security Act, after two Sept. 11 hijackers on a federal "watch list" used their
real names to board the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon. The alerts about
the two men, however, were not relayed to the airlines.
The detaining of activists has stirred concern among members of Congress and
civil liberties advocates. They want to know what safeguards exist to prevent
innocent people from being branded "a threat to civil aviation or national security."
And they are troubled by the bureaucratic nightmare that people stumble into
as they go from one government agency to another in a maddening search to find
out who is the official keeper of the no-fly list.
"The problem is that this list has no public accountability: People don't know
why their names are put on or how to get their names off," said Jayashri Srikantiah,
an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "We
have heard complaints from people who triggered the list a first time and then
were cleared by security to fly. But when they fly again, their name is triggered
Several federal agencies -- including the CIA, FBI, INS and State Department
-- contribute names to the list. But no one at those agencies could say who is
responsible for managing the list or who can remove names of people who have been
cleared by authorities.
Transportation Security Administration spokesman David Steigman initially said
his agency did not have a no-fly list, but after conferring with colleagues, modified
his response: His agency does not contribute to the no- fly list, he said, but
simply relays names collected by other federal agencies to airlines and airports.
"We are just a funnel," he said, estimating that fewer than 1,000 names are on
"TSA has access to it. We do not maintain it." He couldn't say who does. Steigman
added he cannot state the criteria for placing someone on the list, because it's
"special security information not releasable (to the public)."
However, FBI spokesman Bill Carter said the Transportation Security Administration
oversees the no-fly list: "You're asking me about something TSA manages. You'd
have to ask TSA their criteria as far as allowing individuals on an airplane or
not." In addition to their alarm that no agency seems to be in charge of the list,
critics are worried by the many agencies and airlines that can access it.
"The fact that so many people potentially have access to the list," ACLU lawyer
Srikantiah said, "creates a large potential for abuse."
At least two dozen activists who have been stopped -- none have been arrested
-- say they support sensible steps to bolster aviation security. But they criticize
the no-fly list as being, at worst, a Big Brother campaign to muzzle dissent and,
at best, a bureaucratic exercise that distracts airport security from looking
for real bad guys.
"I think it's a combination of an attempt to silence dissent by scaring people
and probably a lot of bumbling and inept implementation of some bad security protocols,"
said Rebecca Gordon, 50, a veteran San Francisco human rights activist and co-founder
of War Times, a San Francisco publication distributed nationally and on the Internet.
Gordon and fellow War Times co-founder Jan Adams, 55, were briefly detained
and questioned by police at San Francisco International Airport Aug. 7 after checking
in at the American Trans Air counter for a flight to Boston. While they were eventually
allowed to fly, their boarding passes were marked with a red "S" -- for "search"
-- which subjected them to more scrutiny at SFO and during a layover in Chicago.
Before Adams' return flight from Boston's Logan International, she was trailed
to the gate by a police officer and an airline official and searched yet again.
While Gordon, Adams and several of the detained activists acknowledged minor
past arrests or citations for participating in nonviolent sit-in or other trespassing
protests, FBI spokesman Carter said individuals would have to be "involved in
criminal activity" -- not just civil disobedience -- to be banned from U.S. airlines.
DEFINING AN ACTIVIST
But, Carter added, "When you say 'activists,' what type of activity are they
involved in? Are they involved in criminal activity to disrupt a particular meeting?
. . . Do you plan on blowing up a building? Do you plan on breaking windows or
throwing rocks? Some people consider that civil disobedience, some people consider
that criminal activity."
Critics question whether Sister Virgine Lawinger, a 74-year-old Catholic nun,
is the kind of "air pirate" lawmakers had in mind when they passed the law. Lawinger,
one of the Wisconsin activists stopped at the Milwaukee airport on April 19, said
she didn't get upset when two sheriff's deputies escorted her for questioning.
"We didn't initially say too much about the detainment, because we do respect
the need to be careful (about airline security)," the nun recounted. "They just
said your name is flagged and we have to clear it. And from that moment on no
one ever gave me any clarification of what that meant and why. I guess that was
Five months later, the 20 members of Peace Action Wisconsin still haven't been
told why they were detained. Even local sheriff's deputies and airline officials
admitted confusion about why the group was stopped, when only one member's name
resembled one on the no-fly list.
At the time, a Midwest Express Airlines spokeswoman told a Wisconsin magazine,
the Progressive, that a group member's name was similar to one on the list and
"the (Transportation Security Administration) made the decision that since this
was a group, we should rescreen all of them."
At a congressional hearing in May, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold pressed FBI
Director Robert Mueller about the Milwaukee incident, asking him pointedly for
an assurance that the agency was not including people on the list because they
had expressed opinions contrary to the policies of the U.S. government.
Mueller's response: "We would never put a person on the watch list solely because
they sought to express their First Amendment rights and their views."
DATABASE OF SUSPICION
The law orders the head of the Transportation Security Administration to work
with federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share database information
on individuals "who may pose a risk to transportation or national security" and
relay it to airlines, airports and local law enforcement. It also requires airlines
to use the list to identify suspect passengers and "notify appropriate law enforcement
agencies, prevent the individual from boarding an aircraft or take other appropriate
In November, Nancy Oden, a Green Party USA official in Maine, wound up being
a suspect passenger and was barred from flying out of the Bangor airport to Chicago,
where she planned to attend a Green Party meeting and make a presentation about
"pesticides as weapons of war."
Oden said a National Guardsman grabbed her arm when she tried to help a security
screener searching her bags with a stuck zipper. The middle-aged woman, who said
she was conservatively dressed and wore no anti-war buttons, said the guardsman
seemed to know her activist background.
"He started spouting this pro-war nonsense: 'Don't you understand that we have
to get them before they get us? Don't you understand what happened on Sept. 11?"
Airport officials said at the time that Oden was barred from boarding because
she was uncooperative with security procedures, which she denies. Instead, Oden
pointed out that the American Airlines ticket clerk -- who marked her boarding
pass with an "S" -- had acknowledged she wasn't picked by random.
"You were going to be searched no matter what. Your name was checked on the
list," he said, according to Oden.
"The only reason I could come up with is that the FBI is reactivating their
old anti-war activists' files," said Oden, who protested the Vietnam War as a
young office worker in Washington, D.C. "It is intimidation. It's just like years
ago when the FBI built a file about me and they called my landlord and my co-workers.
. . . They did that with everyone in the anti-war movement."
A TOOL FOR TERROR
In his testimony before Congress, Mueller described the watch list as an necessary
tool for tracking individuals who had not committed a crime but were suspected
of terrorist links.
"It is critically important," he said, "that we have state and locals (police)
identify a person has been stopped, not necessarily detained, but get us the information
that the person has been stopped at a particular place."
None of this makes the peace activists feel any safer -- about flying or about
their right to disagree with their government.
"It's probably bad for (airport) security," said Sister Virgine. "Stopping
us took a lot of staff away from checking out what else was going on in that airport."
Ultimately, she said, "To not have dissent in a country like this would be
an attack on one of our most precious freedoms. This is the essence of being an
American citizen -- the right to dissent."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle