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U.S.: Rights Group Challenges Airline Security Effort

The United States has recently taken further steps to protect itself from potential terrorists traveling into -- and over -- its territory. It has increased the number of nations whose citizens will undergo extra scrutiny upon entry into the United States. And it is enforcing a so-called no-fly list, which bars from flying those people believed to pose a threat to security. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush says it is merely trying to protect the public. Critics say the U.S. government is going too far.

Washington, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On 2 April, Washington added 27 countries to the list of those whose nationals must be photographed and fingerprinted upon entry into the United States.

Many critics say the move by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was politically unwise because the countries include close U.S. allies, such as Britain, Australia, and Japan. The new steps go into effect on 30 September. All citizens but those from neighboring Canada and Mexico will have to be fingerprinted and photographed upon arrival in the United States.

The Bush administration says the procedure is necessary because these nations will not meet a deadline of 1 October to begin using what are known as "biometric" passports, which include such difficult-to-counterfeit physical data as fingerprints and iris scans.

Another security tool being used by the TSA is the "no-fly" list of people who are considered threats by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI acknowledges that innocent travelers with names similar to those on the no-fly list may be inconvenienced. But a spokesman says such people can quickly straighten out the confusion with law-enforcement agencies.

"What is most disturbing to me about this is that the government has put my name on a watch list, has designated me as a kind of permanent suspect, but it won't tell me why, and it won't tell me what I can do to clear my name."
That is not good enough, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a private organization that works in legislatures and courts to help ensure the individual liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Yesterday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court in Seattle challenging the TSA's right to use the list. It argues that because several people can have the same name, innocent travelers are routinely stopped at airport security checkpoints.

One plaintiff in the suit is David Fathi, himself an ACLU lawyer. He said yesterday at a Washington news conference that he has been singled out several times by airport security personnel. "I have been repeatedly detained, interrogated, and searched by airport personnel. I have been led away by armed police, I've been threatened with indefinite detention, and I've had one officer tell another to put me in handcuffs and take me away," he said. "Now, I have a pretty thick skin, but when these things happen not just once but over and over again, it's humiliating and it's frightening."

The lawsuit is a class action, meaning it seeks to rectify a wrong being done to an entire class of people -- in this case, all innocent travelers who have been detained during airport security checks. There are, however, seven individual plaintiffs in the case, including Fathi. Other individual plaintiffs include a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force with 16 years of military duty and a 74-year-old retired Presbyterian minister.

Fathi said that every time he was stopped he was eventually able to persuade security personnel that he posed no threat. But he said the detentions persist. "This might be less of a problem if there were a way to get off the no-fly list," he said. "But there is not. And what is most disturbing to me about this is that the government has put my name on a watch list, has designated me as a kind of permanent suspect, but it won't tell me why, and it won't tell me what I can do to clear my name."

The no-fly list has flaws that should be corrected, but the list should not be discarded altogether, according to Paul Rosenzweig, who studies legal and civil liberties issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Rosenzweig told RFE/RL that the no-fly list is one of several layers of protection the U.S. government is trying to place between terrorists and the U.S. public. He says the ACLU may be right for trying to improve the way names are added to that list, but it runs the risk of weakening protection in the process.

"If the ACLU succeeds, they'll remove an important part of the layer. One of the things I think they're doing is imposing an obligation of perfection on the government. We can't reasonably expect perfection. The TSA of course should have better procedures to try and clear up the mistakes, but doing away with the no-fly list will endanger all of us because of the imperfections of government, and that's just not sensible," Rosenzweig said.

In fact, Rosenzweig said, far from offending foreigners, the United States' new airport security is consistent with that of other countries. He says that before the 11 September attacks, the United States was so open to visitors that its security was inadequate. Now, he said, it is getting appropriately strong.

Rosenzweig cited Italy as an example of a country whose airports have the kind of security that travelers have long encountered outside the United States. "There's a lot more both overt and covert security in European airports, and you see it overtly with the carabinieri with their guns everywhere at Italian airports," he said. "And they do a great deal more checking of people's baggage and identity. Our objections to the no-fly lists would certainly be inconsistent with the European treatment of the same problem."

Until the FBI and the TSA can improve the way they use the no-fly list, Rosenzweig said, Americans will have to endure some inconvenience in the interest of increased security.