[OPE-L:7716] No-fly blacklist snares political activists

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Fri Sep 27 2002 - 14:45:31 EDT

All I can say is that we are lucky that someone of the intelligence 
and competence of Jayashri is fighting this.

The Gate        www.sfgate.com        Return to regular view

No-fly blacklist snares political activists
Alan Gathright, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, September 27, 2002
2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2002/09/27/MN181034.DTL

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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 

"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 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 

"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 

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.


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 

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."


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 

"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."


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."

E-mail Alan Gathright at agathright@sfchronicle.com.

2002 San Francisco Chronicle.   Page A - 1

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