ACLU challenges ‘no-fly’ list

The Bush administration’s “no-fly” list of terrorism suspects, used to screen passengers on the nation’s airlines, has snared hundreds of innocent travelers and violated their civil rights, a lawsuit filed Tuesday contends.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, charges that seven passengers were erroneously stopped, searched and questioned by airline security officials because their names were on the list. None were criminals, but they were detained because they had similar names.

The ACLU suit charges that this has happened to “hundreds if not thousands” of travelers. More than 600 million passengers boarded U.S. airplanes in 2002, according to the Air Transport Association, a trade organization.

“I am not a hijacker. I am not a terrorist. The government has no reason to put my name on a list of suspected terrorists,” said David Fathi, one of the plaintiffs, who also said he has been interrogated six times in the last two years.

The lawsuit contends that searching and questioning people whose names are similar to those on the list is unconstitutional, and the ACLU said it intended to ask a federal judge to halt the practice.

A spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, which created the list and requires airlines to use it, declined to comment on the suit’s allegations. Spokesman Mark Hatfield said the no-fly list was highly accurate, but that sometimes there were “false positives” in the screening process.

Since just after Congress passed the Transportation Security Act following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, airlines began to screen passengers by comparing information about them with the no-fly list of terrorism suspects. The passengers whose names are on the list must go through additional screening and may be barred from flying.

The ACLU also contends that some people are placed on the list mistakenly, violating their constitutional right to freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. Once on the list, the ACLU charges, the passengers are stopped every time they fly, yet are unable to correct or even check the government’s database.

“Our clients are totally innocent,” said Reginald Shuford, the ACLU staff attorney for the case. “What happens to them is much more than a minor inconvenience. They are routinely subjected to humiliating treatment … delayed and interrogated.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Seattle, where three of the seven plaintiffs live. The ACLU identified the plaintiffs as a retired Presbyterian minister, an Air Force sergeant, a college student, a lawyer, two employees of the ACLU and an employee of the American Friends Service in Philadelphia, a Quaker organization.

Not much is known about the “no-fly” list. The TSA has declined to comment on how many people are on the list or how it is compiled.

David Stone, the TSA’s acting administrator, assured congressional lawmakers last month that a new screening system should cure some of the problems with the list.

Called the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, it will reduce errors by comparing passengers’ names with information in other governmental and commercial databases. A passenger advocate’s office will give customers an opportunity to correct the database.

The ACLU seeks assurances that data collected for CAPPS II won’t be used for other purposes or retained after the passengers’ flights.

“We have no problem with the government doing whatever it can to make us safe,” the ACLU’s Shuford said. “Simply what we want … is for our clients to be treated just like every other innocent passenger who attempts to fly.”