Are You on a Terrorist Watch List?

Surprisingly, the alleged victims of the new security are not much more forthcoming than the secretive feds. Johnnie Thomas doesn’t return calls anymore. Doug Stuber has not confirmed his story with The Rake, and has since been suspended from his position with the North Carolina Green Party for “misrepresenting the party,” according to Laura King, chair of North Carolina Green Party. (King says his suspension is unrelated to the incident and that the party can neither confirm nor deny details regarding it.) The Secret Service has also declined to talk about the incident. Nor has Amnesty International replied to queries asking if their membership has found itself under the security thumb.

The Rake was able to talk to Marc Mannes, who has recovered from the loss of his Swiss Army knife at airport security (“The Accidental Terrorist,” October 2002). Mannes recently traveled to Cuba as a consultant to the World Health Organization. When he returned to Minneapolis, he declared that he’d been to Cuba, along with Mexico and Jamaica. Dutifully whisked aside for a customs confessional, Mannes felt certain his name would soon be digested by the listmaking industry and flagged for extra attention during future travels. But despite his contact with the forbidden island and political views “slightly to the left of George Bush,” subsequent flights have been uneventful, security-wise. Perhaps we are being overly paranoid.

The American Civil Liberties Union has responded to this threat to its namesake by setting up a “Passenger Profiling Complaint Form” on its website. But while local ACLU spokesman Charles Samuelson will talk your ear off about virtually anything else, he won’t reveal just how many hits they’ve had on the form. For the most part, the victims of politically targeted screening are keeping their secrets better than the CIA.

In the watchlist game, it’s hard to tell who’s the more paranoid, the government or its citizens. For his part, McCabe says the public is unaware of just how much the FBI has reformed over the past decade, and how much they play it by the book. Still, the feds certainly have history going against them. And it’s hard to know whether to be comforted or disturbed when federal agencies open their files in the interest of the Freedom of Information Act. Who can forget Daniel Schorr’s live CBS broadcast of President Nixon’s enemies list, on which he famously found his own name? The CIA website now contains Reagan-era watchlists of anti-war activists, including the Nuclear Freeze Campaign.

A few months ago, Becky Roering, then the acting deputy director of security for the local TSA office, told The Rake that passenger names are not screened against any list at Minneapolis-St. Paul International. This seemed counter-intuitive, and, as it turned out, not quite true. After our conversation, TSA spokesman David Steigman confirmed the existence of a No Fly List with about 1,000 names on it. It’s obvious, of course, why the Bush administration has a stake in keeping a lid on details about intelligence failures and 9/11. But why would the TSA not be forthcoming sooner about something it’s doing to protect us?

Nick O’Hara acknowledges that habits of secrecy in federal agencies have led not only to a suspicious public, but have often robbed the feds of the good P.R. they need to maintain citizen support. Americans certainly might be a little less paranoid if the feds didn’t act so guilty when the press gets nosey. On the other hand, there is the very real possibility that the more we learn about lists, the more we find out about their limitations. The public is wise to ask when—or even if—a secret list has yet prevented tragedy or led to a conviction.

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