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No-Fly Blacklist Snares Political Activists
Published on Friday, September 27, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
No-Fly Blacklist Snares Political Activists
by Alan Gathright
 

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."

NO ACCOUNTABILITY

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 again."

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 the list.

"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 our frustration."

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 action."

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

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