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   Who Decides Who Gets To Fly?


Who Decides Who Gets To Fly?

From press reports

Federal rules can be interpreted in ways that prevent political activists from traveling.

Laws can have unintended consequences, especially when their interpretation must me made on the spot by people not trained to be judges. Such is the case with the federal "No Fly" list. It’s supposed to block terrorists from boarding planes. But it’s also being invoked to prevent peace activists from traveling. This has happened so far at San Francisco International Airport and several others.

Several federal agencies--including the CIA, FBI, INS and State Department--are contributing names to the “No Fly” list, whose existence was mandated by congress. When The San Francisco Chronicle’s Alan Gathright sought information on who had ultimate responsibility for managing the list, no one at the various agencies “could or would say” which agency plays this role, according to a Chronicle story on September 27.

Twenty Wisconsin anti-war activists missed a flight to meet with congressional representatives, and had to postpone their trip for a day. "What's scariest to me is that there could be this gross interruption of civil rights and nobody is really in charge," Sarah Backus, an organizer of the Wisconsin group, is quoted in the Chronicle. "That's really 1984-ish."

The “No-Fly” list was enacted as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, passed last fall in the wake of the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Critics of “the list” complain that there is no public accountability for it. No one seems clear how names get on the list, and how names can be removed. What is known is that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which does not contribute to the no-fly list, is responsible for relaying names collected by other federal agencies to airlines and airports. A spokesman for the TSA estimated to Chronicle reporters that fewer than 1,000 names are listed.

In the end, however, TSA has the ultimate decision of whether to detain someone whose name is on the list, or to left that person board a plane.

FBI spokesman Carter said individuals would have to be "involved in criminal activity" -- not just civil disobedience -- to be banned from U.S. airlines. Sister Virgine Lawinger, 74, a Catholic nun, was among the Wisconsin activists stopped at the Milwaukee airport on April 19. Five months later, neither she nor her fellow peace activists have been provided with the information they have requested about why they were detained. The Progressive magazine pursued the issue and was told by a Midwest Express Airlines spokeswoman that one member of the group had a name that was similar to one on the list. The TSA decided to re-screen the entire group.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) questioned FBI Director Robert Mueller about the Milwaukee incident. Mueller replied, according to the Chronicle, "We would never put a person on the watch list solely because they sought to express their First Amendment rights and their views."

Mueller testified before Congress that the watch list is needed to track individuals who, though they had not committed a crime, were suspected of having terrorist links. The FBI wants to pinpoint the locations of such people.

See Alan Gathright’s story: "No-fly blacklist snares political activists".

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on October 2, 2002.
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