Thomas Burke represents my partner and me in our odyssey with the US government's "No Fly List." Now he has joined the club. Airlines tell him he is on the "terrorist watch list." Tom, we're sorry if we'd dragged you into a crazed wonderland we've come to know too well.
"From the TSA's perspective, the screening is just one of the many new layers of increased security that are designed to thwart terrorist activity. The inconvenience is regrettable, but a price that society has to pay for security. And for national security reasons, the FBI and other government agencies responsible for supplying names to the lists will not divulge the criteria they use. They say that would amount to tipping their hands to the terrorists.
"'People on the lists are known threats to civil aviation or suspected threats,' says Amy Von Walter, a TSA spokeswoman."
Burke makes the same complaint we do: "The underlying danger is not that Tom Burke can no longer get a boarding pass to get on an airline," says the First Amendment lawyer. "It's that the Tom Burkes in the world may forever more be associated [with the terrorist watch list]."
In August 2002, my partner and I were stopped and detained at the San Francisco airport and told we were on the "FBI no fly list." Although we were eventually able to fly, the experience was distressing even to long time political activists.
Since the TSA wouldn't (or couldn't) tell us how our names got on their list, we sued.
In October 2004, the government released some documents about the "no fly" list that revealed a picture of great uncertainty and embarrassing inefficiency in compiling agencies. Once your name gets on this list, an event that seems pretty random, there seems to be no formal process to remove anyone, nor any guarantee that some agency here or abroad may not carry on for years with the notion that you pose a threat.
The next hearing in our lawsuit is currently scheduled for April 22. If this thing ever gets finished, now we'll have to agitate to get Tom off the list. Stay tuned…