"The threat of people acting in their own enlightened and
rational self-interest strikes bureaucrats, politicians
and social workers as ominous and dangerous." W.G. Hill.
Asif Iqbal, a Rochester, New York, management consultant, must get FBI clearance every Monday and Thursday when he flies to and from Syracuse for business. Iqbal can't get off a government watch list because he shares the same name as a suspected terrorist.
But Asif Iqbal, the suspected terrorist, is eight years younger than his Rochester namesake.
What's more, the suspected terrorist Iqbal has been in U.S. custody at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since January 2002 when he was captured in Afghanistan!
In a letter to his congressional representative,Iqbal of New York said he was first denied the ability to board a plane on Feb. 18, 2002, almost a full month after the British Foreign Office informed the suspected terrorist Iqbal's family that he was being held as an "enemy combatant."
Just as Asif Iqbal of Rochester isn't the only Asif Iqbal, he's also not the only U.S. resident battling to clear his name from government watch lists.
The aviation list, intended to catch terrorists before they board planes, has persistently and widely snagged innocent American travelers, according to government documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The documents -- which include numerous e-mails, letters and call logs detailing the attempts of seemingly ordinary Americans to remove themselves from the list -- reveal that the lists are only getting longer. "The FAA/TSA 'watchlist' has expanded almost daily " according to an internal Transportation Security Administration memo dated Oct. 16, 2002.
Those who objected to being repeatedly targeted include a 71-year-old retired English teacher, a frequent business traveler with "top-secret" security clearance, an employee of the Bothell, Washington, city manager's office, a prominent businessman from Huntington Beach, California, and a woman whose name is similar to an Australian man 20 years her junior.
Most said they understood the need for heightened security and that they hope they are eventually cleared to fly when they travel.
But all said they were inaccurately targeted by an overly simplistic system, and they complained of missed flights and invasive and embarrassing searches.
The city worker said a National Guardsman aimed an M16 at him when he refused a request to stand on one leg because he was recovering from a leg injury.
In the documents, all of the travelers complained about the inability to clear their names from the list. One person wrote that he must show up four hours before his flight in order to clear security in time for departure. Another said government officials suggested he change his name.
"I've endured too many security checks for this to be 'just a random search' -- this is harassment. I am a 62-year-old Caucasian grandmother and law-abiding citizen," wrote one woman, who also said she is screened on nearly every segment of a flight, including transfers.
Other travelers said they match against the watch list on the basis of their last name only. An airline pilot who is an American citizen with a common Pakistani surname complained in a letter to Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) because the scrutiny he faced had caused his employer to nearly cancel a flight.
"Could you imagine if you were stopped, questioned for over an hour and almost missing a plane because the name 'Quinn' was in the computer?" the pilot asked. The pilot's name was blacked out in the document.
FBI agent Louie Allen wrote the TSA asking for assistance on behalf of a woman who was denied boarding because of the similarity of her name to the alias of a wanted Australian man.
It even seems that having national security clearance doesn't help.
Lawyers for Syracuse Research wrote Congressman James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) on behalf of an employee who has "top-secret security clearance" and frequently flies from Syracuse to Washington D.C. "to conduct business at the Pentagon."
But the employee has difficulty getting cleared to fly since he shares the same last name and birth year as someone on the watch list. Each time he flies, he is detained until an FBI agent comes in to verify his identity, according to the letter.
The company's law firm sent two letters directly to the TSA in May and September of 2002, but is still awaiting a response from the agency, according to attorney Timothy Lambrecht.
"These personal stories underscore the fact that there is no due process in this system and that there is no established mechanism for people to clear their names," said David Sobel, EPIC's lead attorney on the case.
Until last fall, the TSA denied the existence of a "no-fly list," but has since admitted that its list is problematic and that it isn't easy for people to be removed.
The released documents revealed that there are not one but two lists.
The first list, called the "no-fly" list, requires the ticketing agent to call law enforcement agents if a match is made. In the case of a name match against the "selectee" list, the passenger's boarding pass is prominently marked with an "S," resulting in increased scrutiny by airport screeners.
The TSA blacked out portions of the memo, which said what criteria was used for each list, which agencies contributed names to the lists and how many people were on each list.
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