By Ruth Conniff
April 27, 2002
Alia Kate, 16, a high school student in Milwaukee, wanted to go to Washington, D.C., for the protests Saturday, April 20. She was looking forward to demonstrating against the School of the Americas and learning how to lobby against U.S. aid for Colombia.
She had an airplane ticket for a 6:55 p.m. flight out of Milwaukee on Friday the 19th, and she got to the airport two hours ahead of time.
But she didn't make it onto the Midwest Express flight.
Neither did many other Wisconsin activists who were supposed to be on board. Twenty of the 37 members of the Peace Action Milwaukee group--including a priest and a nun--were pulled aside and questioned by Milwaukee County sheriff's deputies. They were not cleared in time for takeoff and had to leave the next morning, missing many of the events.
What tripped them up was a computerized "No Fly Watch List" that the federal government now supplies to all the airlines. The airlines are required to check their passenger lists against that computerized "No Fly" list.
"The name or names of people in that group came up in a watch list that is provided through the federal government and is provided for everyone who flies," says Sergeant Chuck Coughlin of the Milwaukee sheriff's department. "The computer checks for exact matches, similar spellings, and aliases. In this particular case, there were similar spellings. About five or six individuals came up on the watch list. Although it was time-consuming, and although they were flight-delayed, the system actually worked."
Don't tell Dianne Henke that.
A volunteer with Peace Action, Henke is the person who organized the whole trip. "We were very upset," she says. "Here we were, going out to lobby, to use our democratic rights, to talk to our legislators, to use our freedom of speech and dissent, and then we're being detained and not told why. We were taking young people and telling them if you use means that are nonviolent and peaceful, your message will be heard. But the fact that we were hampered, that we were detained, was just a totally different message."
Henke doesn't blame the sheriff's deputies. "They were very sympathetic to us, but they just weren't getting the answers they wanted from the other end of the telephone," she says.
It was never made clear to her exactly why they were being detained.
"We were getting all these different stories from the deputies. One possibility was that a UWM [University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee] student had a name, Jacob Laden, that was similar to a terrorist's name [Osama bin Laden]. Then another story was that someone had a foreign name that was changed to make it sound more American, Alia Kate, who used to be Alia Torabian. Her father was Persian or Iranian. I've known her all my life," says Henke, who looks up Kate's number in an old Montessori phone book.
"I was one of the first people in our group to try to check in," says Kate. "When I went up to get my boarding pass, the lady said there were some problems. She said her computer locked up and she had to wait for someone else. And I found out that the someone else was one of the sheriff's deputies on duty. And the sheriff's deputy came and told me I had to grab my bags and follow her for further questioning.
"I was a little scared. I was a little confused. I didn't know what it was about. I was alone and was taken to a building nearby. They sat me down in a chair, and I just waited for 15 or 20 minutes. They had my driver's license. They asked me what my phone number was and address was. I heard them making phone calls, reading off some stuff on my license. Then they asked me what my nationality was.
"I said I'm half Persian and Italian and German.
"They asked who was Persian, my mother or my father.
"I said, my father, my biological father. I don't even know him.
"They also asked me if I was a U.S. citizen.
"I told them I was.
"They asked me if I was from around here.
"I said yes."
Though one of the sheriff's deputies said "it was just a routine procedure," they gave Alia several different explanations for what was happening, she says. "They said it might have to do with increased security in the Washington, D.C., area, or it might have to do with Indonesian terrorists."
She says there may have been an element of racial profiling involved, too. "I guess we're looking for Hispanic names," one of the deputies said, according to Kate. She suspects they thought her first name was Hispanic, and she says that two others detained early on, Manuel Sanchez and Isabella Horning, may have been selected for their names.
Finally, they walked Kate back to the ticket counter, but the computer froze up again, so Kate and Sanchez and Horning were told to go sit down and wait for the deputies to deliver their boarding passes.
"They gave us our boarding passes, which had a bold-faced S with little asterisks on both sides, circled with an ink marker," Kate says. "This meant that when we went to the gate our carry-on bags would have to be hand-searched and they'd have to wand us."
But the deputies took so much time going through the whole group that not everyone was ready to go by 6:55.
Midwest Express held the flight for as long as it could but then left, almost empty, without most of the activists.
"I was shocked," Kate says. "I couldn't believe what was happening, that they could detain us long enough for us to miss our flight in an apparent attempt to keep us in Milwaukee. It was sort of McCarthy-style the way they have the names appearing on a list and targeting certain people, dissenters especially. I felt my rights had been violated."
Sister Virgine Lawinger also was detained. "When I went through the line, the lady at the ticket counter said, 'I'm sorry, you have to wait a minute,' and then the sheriff's deputy came and took me and some others to an office," she says. "All they asked us at that point was our birthplace and said these were just routine checks. They said our names were flagged. That's the real strange thing: What caused the computer to flag those names? I did feel it was profiling a particular group without a basis--a peace group. The abuse of power was so obvious."
Sister Virgine says she's upset about "losing an entire day of intense education on the issue of Colombia." And she says her "right to dissent" was infringed upon.
Father Bill Brennan of St. Patrick's Church in Milwaukee also missed his flight because of the questioning. "No one was charged with a crime or threat of a crime," he says. "No one was advised of his or her civil rights. My personal reaction is fear of the arbitrary use of power this incident reveals. Someone in Washington has the power to inspect a passenger list drawn up in Wisconsin, discover the motive of our flight (namely, a peace protest against what goes on at Fort Benning, Georgia, particularly as it affects Colombia), decide who might possibly be subversives, and stop our takeoff."
Sarah Backus, a coordinator for SOA [School of the Americas] Watch Wisconsin, says she was told by one of the sheriff's deputies: "You're probably being stopped because you are a peace group and you're protesting against your country."
Backus later asked the sheriff, David Clarke, about this, and he denied this was the reason for the detentions, she says.
Backus also went to the Midwest Express ticket desk to find out what was going on. "The names are in the computer, and the names came up," she says she was told.
Lisa Bailey, a spokesperson for Midwest Express, says, "As the group checked in, one of the passengers showed up on this list. At that point, the airline got the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] rep and Milwaukee County sheriffs. The TSA made the decision that since this was a group, we should rescreen all of them." Midwest Express either found hotels for those who missed their flights or provided transportation home.
Bailey says that screening the names against the list is standard operating procedure. "Everyone who travels is now cleared through this list."
Where did this list come from?
One U.S. Marshal said the FBI compiles the list, and an FBI agent said it "comes out of headquarters." But a spokesperson for the FBI in Washington, Steve Berry, would not comment at all on the issue of the "No Fly" list, and referred all questions to the TSA, a new wing of the Department of Transportation.
The TSA was established by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which President Bush signed into law on November 19. This law puts the Under Secretary of Transportation for Security in charge of airline security. Today, the Under Secretary of Transportation for Security is John W. Magaw, a former Secret Service agent.
The law empowers Magaw to "establish policies and procedures requiring air carriers to use information from government agencies to identify individuals on passenger lists who may be a threat to civil aviation and, if such an individual is identified, to notify appropriate law enforcement agencies and prohibit the individual from boarding an aircraft."
The TSA has taken that power and run with it.
"The list is a compilation from intelligence agencies and is shared with the airlines," says Paul Turk, a spokesperson for the TSA. "But as to how you get on it, or how it's maintained, or who maintains it, I can't help you with that."
Turk adds that he doesn't know how large the list is, "and if I did, I couldn't tell you."