Grounded

A federal agency confirms that it maintains an air-travel blacklist of 1,000 people. Peace activists and civil libertarians fear they're on it.

Topics: Environment, Terrorism,

Grounded

Barbara Olshansky was at a Newark International Airport departure gate last May 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, a well-known grassroots advocacy group, 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 local sheriff’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 because he missed his flight, he had to pay almost $2,000 more for a full-fare ticket to Hamburg so that he would not miss his business engagement. In the end, however, after trying several airports in the North Carolina area, he found he was barred from boarding any flights, and had to turn in his ticket and cancel 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 Catholic 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 by 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 all raises 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 has already signed up Lawinger, Stuber, and several others from Milwaukee’s Peace Action group.

    Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected.

  • More Related Stories

    Featured Slide Shows

    • Share on Twitter
    • Share on Facebook
    • 1 of 11
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
      Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
      Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Here by Richard McGuire
      A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
      The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
      This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
      For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Over Easy by Mimi Pond
      When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
      You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Shoplifter by Michael Cho
      Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
      This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

    • Recent Slide Shows

    Comments

    0 Comments

    Comment Preview

    Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>