Are You on a Terrorist Watch List?

News reports of some recent airport security incidents have taken on shades of the movie Brazil. Travel writer David Rowell wrote recently in The New Yorker about a 70-something grandmother from New Jersey who had repeatedly found herself on the TSA No Fly List when trying to visit family on Martha’s Vineyard. According to the story, Mrs. Johnnie Thomas’ name was similar enough to John Thomas Christopher, the alias of a genuine fugitive, to get her permanently flagged. Having contacted almost as many federal agencies as we did for this story, Thomas still could not get her name removed from the list, and continued to endure high-level scrutiny every time she traveled by air.

“If your name is Ramzi Yusef and you’re traveling, you are probably going to get stopped,” said Nick O’Hara bluntly of this story. “Or if your name is Bin Laden, you’re going to get stopped. It’s the nature of the beast.”

“I don’t know about that case,” said TSA spokesperson Brian Doyle when asked about Thomas. “But we’ve had some cases where you might have a Bob S. Smith and one might be Bob T. Smith, and every single time they get secondarily wanded. We’re working to get the kinks out of that. It’s not something we’re ignoring.”

Something security officials are not ignoring, but rather categorically denying, is a growing collection of anecdotes suggesting that their lists may have become a political tool for inflicting discomfort and inconvenience on liberals. In November, a story in Salon reported the tales of five left-wing activists who have been screened repeatedly, and, in one case, not allowed to fly at all. In the latter case, North Carolina Green Party activist Doug Stuber said he was interviewed by the Secret Service in the Raleigh-Durham airport after making untoward comments about President Bush. During his interrogation, Stuber claims to have taken a clandestine peek at a Secret Service binder containing a list of organizations including the Green Party, EarthFirst, and Amnesty International. Law enforcement and security officials are, of course, shocked to hear allegations that the tools of their trade may have nefarious political applications.

“I think that’s probably nonsense,” said O’Hara, adding that he and his wife were searched in three different airports on the same trip.
“Now if Al Qaeda is a political party, you bet,” quipped the TSA’s Welna. “And if you knew somebody was a member of Hamas, you would certainly take some extra time.”
“To be honest with you, I have no comment on that,” said the TSA’s Doyle.
“That’s ridiculous. Unless a person has ties to a terrorist organization, they would not be on the Terrorism Watch List,” said the FBI’s McCabe, who takes criticism of his employer a little personally. “I know the average citizen thinks we can just pull up in front of your house and listen in on your conversations. That’s how they portray it in movies. That’s the farthest thing from the truth… A lot of the fears, you know, are just not real. I wish everyone could spend one day inside the FBI. We have enough real criminals to go after.” (Those of us who have tried that line to weasel out of a speeding ticket know how much traction it gets.)

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