Apparently it takes a British newspaper to confirm that paranoia about the police-state trends of the U.S. government is starting to come true.
Last week the London Independent disclosed, just as some American anti-war protestors have claimed for a year or more, that the federal government has a little list of dissidents to see whom it should stop, search and possibly detain at airports. [US anti-war activists hit by secret airport ban, By Andrew Gumbel, Independent, August 03, 2003 Pay archive free]
The list is not the same as the perfectly sensible catalogue of suspected criminals and terrorists known as the “no-fly” list the government maintains. Nobody on the previously unknown list seems to have broken the law or threatened anyone, and, until the Transportation Security Administration confirmed its existence last week, it was entirely secret.
According to the Independent, the list, “possibly hundreds or even thousands of names long,” consists of people the government “deems worthy of special scrutiny at airports.”
Indeed, thanks to what seems to be the virtually total silence of the American media about it, the existence of the list remains effectively as secret now as before the Independent reported it.
Nor is the list confined to anti-war activists. In fact, there’s really no telling who’s on the list or what its purpose is. The only reason it’s known at all is that in the course of a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the TSA spilled at least one or two beans about it. The activists who filed the suit are two peaceniks who say they have never been arrested but were stopped at the San Francisco airport last year, detained briefly and told “they were on an FBI no-fly list.”
And they aren’t the only ones. Two others described in the Independent account as “a left-wing constitutional lawyer who has been strip-searched repeatedly when traveling through U.S. airports” and, most dangerous of all , “a 71-year-old nun from Milwaukee who was prevented from flying to Washington to join an anti-government protest,” are also on the list.
As the London paper also reports, “It is impossible to know for sure who might be on the list, or why,” but according to the American Civil Liberties Union, some 300 people have already been detained at the San Francisco airport, though “in no case does it appear that a wanted criminal was apprehended.”
Finally, lefties aren’t the only people to come under government scrutiny. The Independent also says that “at least one conservative organization, the Eagle Forum, says its members have been interrogated by security staff.”
Conservatives in general have never had much of a problem with government lists of suspected subversives and terrorists and rightly so. They recognize the legitimacy of the state to protect national security, including internal security.
But what the government seems to be doing these days is quite different from what conservatives have always defended.
In the first place, not only does no one seem to know who’s on the list but no one seems to know even what the list is for. If people who have no criminal records are on it, what’s the point? And if the government can’t explain the point, how does it know whom to put on the list at all? It’s one thing to make a list of criminals and terrorists, but the only criterion for making the new list seems to be the expression of some degree of skepticism about current government policy. There is no reason to believe the purpose of the list is to keep track of people actually involved in anti-American activities, even at a legal and non-violent level.
ACLU spokesmen say there are some funny things about it. According to answers the TSA offered, “The agency had no way of making sure that people did not end up on the list simply because of things they had said or organizations they belonged to. Once people were on the list, there was no procedure for trying to get off it. The TSA did not even think it was important to keep track of people singled out in error for a security grilling. According to documents the agency released, it saw ‘no pressing need to do so’.”
Swell. The government doesn’t seem to know what the list is really for, who’s on it, why they’re on it, or why they should be removed from it.
What’s dangerous about the list and the intrusion it represents are two things: First, not so much what the government is doing with the list now, but what it might eventually do with it once it collects enough information about whoever is on it, and secondly, who else will eventually wind up on the list and why.