Big Brother's Flight Plan

Revolutionary Worker #1185, February 2, 2003, posted at

"Clevinger was a troublemaker and a wise guy. Lieutenant Scheisskopf knew that Clevinger might cause even more trouble if he wasn't watched."

From the novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

"In his testimony before Congress, [FBI Director] Mueller described the watch list as a necessary tool for tracking individuals who had not committed a crime but were suspected of terrorist links."

San Francisco Chronicle, September 27, 2002

As the new year kicked in, the media was full of reports about new security measures related to air travel. New scanning equipment installed, more air marshals deployed, tighter restrictions placed on baggage, etc. Buried among the flurry of coverage were other measures by the government-- some already in place, others on their way--that take the profiling of air travelers to whole new levels.

Big Brother has a flight plan. Under this plan, people from groups with names like Center for Constitutional Rights are put on "watch lists" and singled out for harassment. Huge amounts of data on people's flight habits are gathered in government computers. And if your name or your travel routine fits a certain profile in a computer database, you will be stopped, searched, questioned, and possibly detained or banned from getting on a plane.

Government officials try to justify all this as necessary measures to "make flying safe" for people--in the same way they try to justify detention of immigrants, passing of laws that hack away at civil liberties, and other attacks on people's rights.

A closer look at the government's air-flight security measures shows that they are not really about ensuring people's safety. These steps are part of the government's intensifying police-state measures aimed at "securing the homeland"--increasing the control over the people and stifling dissent--as the U.S. bullies its way around the world.

The TSA Watch List

Last year Congress passed the Aviation Transportation Security Act, creating the Transportation Security Administration (which will eventually become part of the Homeland Security Department). The TSA is in charge of security for all commercial transportation within the U.S. It has been given millions of dollars for sophisticated systems to prescreen bags and people .

There is now a federal security director at all the major airports, and airport screeners--of which there are to be 29,000 eventually--are all federal employees. To meet its staffing demands the TSA is recruiting heavily from other federal agencies like the FBI and Border Patrol. The Washington Post reported that the Border Patrol "expects to lose at least 20 percent of its officers this fiscal year, most of them to the TSA."

The TSA claims its mission is "to ensure freedom of movement." But its real aim is to monitor and regulate people's movements within the borders of the U.S. For example, one of the first things the TSA set about doing was to create and enforce a "watch list" of people the government has categorized as a risk to transportation or national security.

The list is secret. When the TSA was asked about the list by journalist Dave Lindorff of, officials at first claimed they had no such list. They later admitted the existence of the list and said there are about 1,000 names on it.

The TSA refuses to disclose key details about the list: Who is actually on the list? What criteria is used to put people on the list and to decide whether someone is targeted for intensive searches or banned from flying altogether?

However, as the watch list is implemented, a picture is emerging of who is being targeted. It is a picture of people who are put on a government list just for being of a certain nationality or for being politically active.

Hussein Ibish of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee told Salon that his group has reports of 80 documented cases, involving 200 people, in which people with Arabic names were delayed from getting on planes or stopped from flying altogether. Some of those cases appear to involve people who are not politically active in any way, and Hussein Ibish speculated that they may have been stopped because they had the same names as some others on the government list.

Various political activists and organizations have also been singled out for intensive searches. Barbara Olshansky, assistant legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, reports that she has been repeatedly stopped at airports. She has even been ordered by security staff to pull her pants down in front of other passengers. According to Salon, "On one flight this past September from Newark to Washington, six members of the center's staff, including Olshansky, were stopped and subjected to intense scrutiny, even though they had purchased their tickets independently and had not checked in as a group."

Many others have been caught in the government's security net at airports. The following are just a few examples:

 Virgine Lawinger, a nun in Milwaukee and an activist with Peace Action, along with 20 young students were stopped from boarding a flight last spring to Washington, DC, to lobby against U.S. military aid to the Colombian government.

 Two journalists with the San Francisco-based antiwar magazine War Times were stopped at the airport counter and told they were on the "FBI no fly list" (the FBI is one of the agencies supplying names to the TSA). After calls to the FBI and local police, the journalists were finally allowed to board.

 A member of the Green Party, Doug Stuber, was stopped and questioned by the U.S. Secret Service about his politics. Stuber was fingerprinted and had a digital eye scan taken. According to Salon, "Particularly ominous, [Stuber] says, was a loose-leaf binder held by Secret Service agents. `It was open, and while they were questioning me, I discreetly looked at it,' he says. `It had a long list of organizations and I was able to recognize the Green Party, Greenpeace, Earth First and Amnesty International.' "

The names that make their way onto the TSA list have been compiled by several agencies including the CIA, FBI, INS, and State Department. However, no one in those organizations will reveal who is responsible for managing the list. The TSA claims it only gathers the names from the other agencies.

And in this shadowy setup, once you're on the list it is no easy matter to get off. Jayashri Srikantiah, a lawyer for the ACLU in Northern California, told the San Francisco Chronicle , "People don't know why their names are put on or how to get their names off. We have heard complaints from people who triggered the list a first time and then were cleared by security to fly. But when they fly again, the name is triggered again."


The focus on new ways of scrutinizing people at airports is not a new thing--it started well before September 11, 2001. But things have taken a leap. A stark example of this is the CAPS program--which is yet another kind of passenger screening.

In 1997, TWA Flight 800 crashed into the ocean off Long Beach killing all passengers and crew. It turned out that the crash was caused by a mechanical failure in the plane. Despite this fact, the Clinton administration used the crash as impetus for instituting the Computer Assisted Passenger Screening system (CAPS). CAPS was designed as a way to search the records of a broad number of travelers for closer scrutiny and profiling.

Katie Corrigan of the ACLU described CAPS in testimony before Congress in February 2002: "The computer evaluates approximately 40 pieces of data that the airlines collect from passengers. Most of the criteria for the profile are secret. According to information in the public record, however, this data includes a person's address, whether the person purchased a ticket in cash, whether the ticket was purchased in advance or shortly before departure, with whom they will travel, whether they will rent a car, when they will depart, the origin and destination of the flight, the destination of the passenger, and whether the flight is one-way or return. The data also includes information in the airlines' frequent flyer database as to whether the airline has communicated with the passenger at a known address."

CAPS also selects people for random searches. This means that literally anyone flying is subject to this kind of search. This is not to make this process more "democratic" but to allow the authorities to better obscure the actual criteria they use for the searches.

The government is moving quickly to ratchet up this profiling method with something they call CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System). According to the Washington Post,"The government's plan is to establish a computer network linking every reservation system in the United States to private and government databases." The TSA has been given $45 million and is asking for another $35 million to implement the program.

One prototype for CAPPS II was tried out at the Winter Olympics in Utah but was scrapped because it wasn't working well enough (prompting John Poindexter of the Defense Department's Information Awareness Office to offer his assistance).

A look at two companies that were given hundreds of thousands of dollars last year to work on the system gives a flavor of what is being set up.

One of the companies, HNC Software, uses fraud-detection software to profile millions of credit card owners, telephone callers, and insurance beneficiaries. According to the Washington Post , HNC Software "works with several other companies that have access to seating records of virtually every U.S. airline passenger or that collect such information as land records, car ownership, projected income, magazine subscriptions and telephone numbers."

Another company given a CAPPS II contract is Lockheed Martin, working with the Las Vegas company Systems Research & Development. According to the Post , Lockheed Martin "can sort through oceans of data in real time, seeking links among people. It also can determine when an individual has transposed names or intentionally tried to obscure details about himself."

The Post reported on December 24 that a top intelligence agent with database expertise had been brought over from the Justice Department to take charge of the CAPPS II project. At the same time, IBM has been given a contract to "expand data sharing links between the TSA and airlines."

In early January, the Bush administration announced its intention to push for new rules on people entering or leaving the U.S. on commercial planes or ships. Under the proposed rules, all such travelers-- including U.S. citizens--will be required to fill out a form with their birth date, citizenship, passport number, address, travel itinerary, and other information. This data would then be entered into government computers for cross referencing against other information.

Programs like the TSA watch list and CAPS I/CAPPS II mean that the number of people coming under close government scrutiny and suspicion will only increase. They want people to quietly accept such sophisticated and massive profiling systems as necessary measures in the name of "safety" and "fighting terrorism." As the rulers of the U.S. ratchet up their threats against larger and larger numbers of people throughout the world, they are using the airports domestically to field test increasingly outrageous police-state measures in the "homeland."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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