Sunday, September 21, 2003

No-Fly List

The Transportation Security Administration's "no-fly list" has been creating quite a stir amongst anti-war activists who feel they are being targeted. Thus, the Sacramento Bee tells the tale of Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon, publishers of a small anti-war newspaper. Adams and Gordon were told by an AirTran representative that their names were on the "no-fly list." As it turned out, the "no-fly list" was a misnomer. They were allowed to fly, though their tickets were stamped with a large red "S." According to the story:
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the pair have sued to find out how they ended up on the list. They suspect their work publishing the anti-war War Times newspaper may have led to their appearance on the list. The Transportation Security Administration denies that, saying no one is targeted for anti-war activism. However, the agency will not discuss individual cases.
This is not the first news story covering the lawsuit filed by Adams and Gordon. The Independent did a similar story in early August, prompting a histrionic cry of "fascism" from Nathan Newman and Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

But is there any substance to the accusation? It's theoretically possible, I suppose, that one or more of the federal agents charged with creating this "no-fly list" singled out anti-war activists, whether on their own or because of orders from on high. But this seems enormously unlikely. I doubt that any government agent would have bothered to look up all the 31 people associated with some two-bit, anti-war rag. It would be a vast waste of time, given two very large groups of people (anti-war activists and potential terrorists) that might overlap only a little.

Of course, those two groups probably do overlap to some extent. Out of all the people whose lives bear some of the genuine indicia of potential terrorists or potential terrorist supporters, surely at least a few are also inclined to engage in anti-war activism. And when those people end up on a no-fly list due to the other indicia, they will be eager to blame it all on a mean-spirited Justice Department intent on persecuting people merely for their political beliefs.

Plus, the no-fly list has swept in a lot of people. Look at all the David Nelsons who have been singled out for extra searches and/or questioning at airports for the last several months? (Stories on the "David Nelson" phenomenon can be found here, here, here, and here, with lots more stories available on Google.)

As one story put it:
Is it a federal blacklist for airlines? Some say it is.
People named David Nelson, for instance, may agree.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) controls a list known as the "no fly" list. Although the names corresponding to this list remain classified, the effect the names are having on airline passengers is no secret.

People across the country with the name David Nelson keep being held by security for extra clearance. From Alaska to the east coast, David Nelsons have had to go through time-delaying extra security clearance in order to get on planes.
In fact, the Sixth Circuit judge for whom I clerked is named David Nelson, and he is most certainly not an anti-war activist. He is a stately, patrician, mild-mannered, elderly man, with a respected career as a federal judge. A more unlikely terrorist could hardly be found. Yet I'm told (by his son Caleb) that even Judge Nelson has been questioned a few times at airports.

Something similar probably happened here. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story on June 8 that included this paragraph:
Adams and Gordon feared the government was targeting them because they're veteran peace activists and co-founders of War Times, a San Francisco anti-war newspaper. Now it appears that reservations systems were rounding up anyone with a name similar to "J. Adams," including a Virginia attorney (J. Christian Adams) and a young woman (Jodi Adam) who was stopped at SFO the same day as the peace activists, according to TSA complaints and police records.
If there is an anti-war activist named David Nelson out there somewhere, we can probably expect an ACLU lawsuit in his name, claiming that he was singled out for his political beliefs. Yet that claim would be baseless, as I suspect the claim of Adams and Gordon to be. With all the thousands of people scrutinized at airports because they have a name similar to a potential terrorist's -- and who could expect the ticketing agent to know the difference? -- it is inevitable that a couple of anti-war activists would end up in the mix.


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