ACLU Challenges Government Secrecy on "No Fly" List at San Francisco Airport

April 22, 2003 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO — Saying that federal officials violated privacy and public information laws, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California today filed a federal lawsuit challenging secret “no fly” and other transportation watch lists. In papers filed with the court, the ACLU said that at least 339 passengers have been stopped and questioned at San Francisco International Airport since September 2001.

“At the San Francisco airport alone, hundreds of passengers were stopped or questioned in connection with the so-called ‘no fly’ list,” said Jayashri Srikantiah, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “If that number is any indication, it is likely that thousands of individuals at airports across the country are being routinely detained and questioned because their names appear on a secret government list.”

Filed in federal district court here, the ACLU lawsuit follows two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act requests filed in the last five months. The ACLU said the lawsuit was necessary because the government has refused to confirm the existence of any protocols, procedures or guidelines as to how the “no fly” lists were created or to detail how they are being maintained or corrected and, importantly, how people who are mistakenly included on the list may have their names removed.

“The government has so far failed to disclose even basic information about the ‘no fly’ list, such as why names are added to the list, how incorrect names can be removed from such lists, and what the guidelines and restrictions are regarding the use of such lists,” Srikantiah said. “The public has a right to accountability about the ‘no fly’ list and other government watch lists.”

The ACLU lawsuit seeks immediate disclosure of the requested records. The ACLU filed the FOIA and Privacy Act requests on behalf of itself and peace activists Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon last November. Earlier in 2002, both women were told by airline agents that their names appeared on a secret “no fly” list at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). The women were briefly detained by San Francisco Police while their names were checked against a “master” list.

On March 12, the ACLU of Northern California filed a records request with airport officials under the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance and the California Public Records Act. On April 8, airport authorities released nearly 400 pages of documents which confirm that approximately 339 air passengers, between September 2001 and March 2003, were stopped or questioned at SFO in connection with the “no fly” list and other watch lists.

An earlier Public Records Act request to airport officials had confirmed the existence of the “no fly” list, and that Gordon’s and Adams’ names had been checked against a “master” list, the ACLU said. The scant public information that is available about transportation watch lists confirms that the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) maintains at least two watch lists: the “no fly” list and a “selectee” list that establishes which air passengers are singled out for additional security measures.

Adams and Gordon, co-publishers of War Times, a newspaper that first began publication after September 11, 2001, said they are deeply troubled by the secrecy of the watch list.

“We are deeply concerned about the government’s secret watch lists and the lack of government accountability,” said Adams. “We want to find out how our names appeared on a government watch list and how we can get our names off the list. But instead of answering our questions, the federal government has refused to release any information.”

Barbara Musante, a Bay Area computer consultant, and her husband Dennis Musante, a manager with Wells Fargo Bank, were also told by airline officials at SFO that their names appeared on a federal “no fly” list, according to the ACLU.

“To detain innocent people because their names are similar to someone who the FBI feels may be a danger to this country is frustrating and not acceptable,” said Barbara Musante.

The case is Rebecca Gordon et al., v. FBI et al., filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The legal complaint is online at /node/35415

A chart of “no fly” incident reports obtained from SFO is online at /node/22869

A previous news release about the FOIA request is online at /node/11463?Type=s

The ACLU recently launched an online advertising campaign addressing the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II, the TSA’s passenger profiling system that threatens to create a permanent blacklist of people who cannot fly. A news release with a link to the ad is online at /node/11546

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