The TSA’s role as journalist harasser and media ‘watchdog’

My experience on this latest journey is also a reminder of how far we in the U.S. have gone down the road towards becoming a police state.

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Image Credit: ABC News Screenshot

Sometimes you have to leave the United States to understand how far this country has evolved towards becoming a police state.

I got a good example of the dark place we’ve reached just last week on a trip with my harpsichordist wife to Vienna where she had been contracted to perform on Austrian State Radio a concert of music by a leftist Jewish composer, her piano teacher in college, who settled in the U.S. after fleeing from Austria just ahead of the Nazi Anschluss that took over and incorporated that country into the Third Reich.

In retrospect, the first indication of a problem occurred the night before our flight, when we tried to make our seat assignments and print our boarding passes for the next day’s flight. My wife managed to easily get both her passes for the London Heathrow leg and for the flight on to the Vienna International Airport. My boarding pass for the second leg of the trip came up onscreen and was printed out okay too. But when we tried to print my boarding pass for the first leg of the trip from Philly to London, it wouldn’t come up. Instead there was a message on the website saying we’d have to obtain that pass at the check-in counter. (Eventually, by trying on both the American Airlines and the partner British Airlines sites several times, she was able to get that boarding pass printed too, somehow.)

All seemed well until, going through the TSA security checkpoint at the Philadelphia International Airport the next morning, I was pulled aside for what i was told was a “random” special inspection. I thought nothing of it, though I did have a special call to go to a full inspection the year before while on a short stopover in Iceland on a flight from the U.K. But later, at our plane change at Heathrow Airport in the U.K., at the point in the flight transfer process where we had to go through a passport and security check, I was told my boarding pass was “not recognized” and that I’d need to go to the airline check-in counter in an adjacent room to obtain a new one. This seemed a little odd, as my wife’s boarding pass had checked out fine, we had bought our tickets together with a single card payment, and our itinerary showed both our names and our adjacent seat reservations for the next flight. But I still naively marked the glitch up to bureaucracy or to an inadequate home printer that perhaps hadn’t worked well enough to be read by the scanner.

Silly me.

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A week later, when it came time to book our seats for the return flight home, the American Airlines website let us make our seat reservations for the entire trip and to place my wife’s boarding passes for the two legs of the flight home on her cell phone. But once again I was only able to access and print the boarding pass for the first leg between Vienna and Heathrow.  Each time we tried to get my second boarding pass for the Heathrow-to-Philadelphia leg, as had happened a week earlier before our first flight, a message popped up saying we’d have to go the airline ticket counter at Heathrow, show my passport, and obtain a boarding pass there.

Clearly, this was much more than a glitch. 

At the Vienna airport, we got the check-in clerk to print out my missing boarding pass as well as, for safety’s sake, hard copies  of the other three passes that we at that point only had electronically showing on our phone.

Everything went smoothly going through security at the Vienna airport from that point and we flew off to London uneventfully, but when I got to the automated boarding pass checkpoint again at Heathrow, my wife went through easily but when it came my turn the turnstile gate wouldn’t open. Instead I got a message on the screen saying my newly acquired official boarding pass for Flight 67 to Philadelphia was “invalid” and instructing me to see an immigration officer. I walked over to a manned gate and after checking my boarding pass and passport the immigration officer there told me I needed to go to the airline’s transfer desk a room away. There an agent scanned my passport, and then printed me a new boarding pass. Before handing it to me, he stamped on it in red letters the words “ICE Security.” Asking what that meant, I was told, “You’d have to ask Homeland Security, sir.”

ICE, I must explain here, stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is officers of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Service who check your passport or passport and visa as you enter the U.S. ICE officers, in contrast, are an enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, dealing with law-enforcement issues and hunting down immigration violators.

Remember dear reader, that looking back, it was clear to us at this point that the initial flagging of my boarding pass had occurred in the US before we even began our journey, but now the placing of a red pre-made “ICE Security” stamp on the new boarding pass by the person at the airline transfer service desk of Heathrow Terminal 3 happened in Britain, not the U.S. It was all being handled by British security and British airline personnel based upon information provided to them by my own country’s Dept. of Homeland Security. This made it clear beyond a doubt that I am on some internationally circulated watch list produced by my own country’s Homeland Security authorities – an action that it is equally clear was being taken on account of my work as a journalist, since I have never done or even written anything, or associated with anyone that would lead to suspicion that I was a terrorist or a threat to an airliner.

I’m a journalist. Period. So much for the First Amendment, and  the Fourth, too if my computer and/or phone was searched.

As we still had two hours of transfer time to kill, we went to the waiting lounge for Terminal 5 where our flight was leaving from and had lunch, finally heading off to our departure gate when the gate number was posted on the schedule board.

As we approached our flight’s gate we heard our names blared out on a loudspeaker that was presumably blasting all over the terminal, saying we should to report to our gate immediately for a security check. As we had just arrived there, I went over to the boarding pass checker at the gate entrance and said I was David LIndorff and that my wife was with me. He announced on his phone to someone that “the Lindorff’s have arrived,” and then turned to us and said, “You need to come with me sir, with your bags and electronic equipment, for a special security check.”

My wife, not wanting me led off alone (a common practice in the US where Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are involved), said, “I want to go with him. Can I go with him?” The gate person said that would be okay and let her join me.  (We had heard an account from a former student of my wife’s, a pianist who lives in Spain and holds a Dutch passport. Trying to enter the U.S. in Seattle on a flight from Mexico City a few months ago, he found himself barred from entry by ICE officers, locked for hours in a windowless room with his computer and cell phone confiscated, and with no food, and 11 hours later was deported on a flight back to Mexico which he had to pay for. He was never given a good explanation for being turned away.  Understandably, my wife  didn’t want the same kind of thing to happen to me.)

As I started down the stairs as directed for my inspection ahead of her, my wife turned and asked the gate boarding pass checker,  “Is my husband getting searched because there’s some kind of code on his boarding pass?” 

He responded, “You will have to ask Homeland Security about that.”  He added, “You don’t have that much to worry about. It’s people of color that have to worry, if you know what I mean.”

When we got to the bottom of the  stairs we found several U.K. airport security staff  waiting behind two tables. At one table, a well-dressed man with light brown skin was having his luggage searched. There were two other people – a man and a woman – who were either packing up from their searches or waiting to be searched.

A British security officer with a strong Indian accent politely asked me to place my carry-on bag on the table between us, first asking me to zip it open for his inspection. He also had me remove my computer and cellphone and place them in front of him. He perfunctorily rifled through all the clothes, papers, etc., in my small wheeled suitcase, then went over my computer and cell phone with a special device which, I presumed at the time was for detecting explosives, but which it later occurred to me might have been hoovering up my data. Then he checked my hands, front and back, for explosives residue with a different device.

Asked why I kept having problems going through airport security, and why there was this special red security stamp on my boarding pass, he said, “It was ordered by your country’s Homeland Security Office, sir.” 

I said, “Yeah, I’m a journalist and our president doesn’t like journalists.”

He replied, “Yes sir, you’ve got a lot of problems over there, I know.”

It had become clear by that point that the guys working for British airport security understood they were being required by U.S. Homeland Security to engage in actions that were purely harassment of people like myself who obviously posed no security threat at all, and they didn’t seem happy being put in that position.

I told him, “I know my writing is unpopular with the government, but I don’t see what that has to do with checking me for explosives.” He didn’t respond to that, just saying, “Okay sir. We’re done. You can go ahead and board.”

I turned to the others who were being checked and asked, “Just out of curiosity, are any of you journalists like me?” 

None replied, but the man who had been security checked at the same time as me later told me, as we were stepping onto the plane, “I think I was stopped because I’m from Brazil.”

I said, ‘It could be. We all know how popular Latin Americans are with our US ICE squads.”  It turned out that this guy was seated in First Class, so he was probably well off (not that money counts for much to our now quite openly racist and xenophobic government).

Remember, the initial flagging of my boarding pass happened in the US, , and the placing of a red pre-made stamp on the new boarding pass by the person at the airline transfer service desk of Heathrow Terminal 3 happened in Britain, not the US, and the whole process was all handled by British security and airline personnel based on information provided to them by my own country’s Dept. of Homeland Security. This made it clear that I am on some internationally circulated watch list for my work as a journalist.

This has happened before to me, in the period after the Iraq War was launched by the Bush/Cheney administration. Living and working for five months in early 2004 as a Fulbright Professor at a university in Taiwan, and for a couple of years thereafter when I was traveling around the US by air promoting my book The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), whenever I would check in and get my boarding pass, the counter agent would look up my reservation and then write a prominent “S” in pen and circle it before handing it to me. I asked a couple of times what the letter meant, and finally one agent told me, “It means special security check,”  and indeed, every time I flew in those years I would have to be patted down, scanned with a hand-held metal detector, and have my carry-on bag opened and pawed through by a TSA employee, or some equivalent person in the foreign country I was in.

Back in November 2002, I wrote a long article for Salon Magazine about the US government’s post-9/11 “No Fly” list. In the course of my research, I learned from a source in Homeland Security something that nobody else seemed to have discovered: that there were actually two government lists. One, the existence of which had been publicly announced, was of people deemed by the FBI and other intelligence agencies to be risks to air safety, i.e., potential terrorists who it was believed might try to bomb or hijack a plane, but for whom there was insufficient evidence for an arrest. People on that list are simply turned away if they try to fly.  My suspicion was that there had to be a second list though, because many people were being repeatedly harassed but then allowed to fly.  These suspicions of mine were confirmed in a second article I did for Salon that ran the following year headlined “Grounding the Flying Nun.” There were, I learned, a few hundred people on the first list, some with common names like  Muhammed Islam – just people with the misfortune of having a name identical to someone who was a suspected terrorist. Then there was another much longer list, containing thousands of names, which was of people who were known to oppose the US government and its policies – particularly its foreign policy and its wars. These people, like a 71-year-old pacifist nun and also my impeachment book co-author Barbara Olshansky, a lead attorney on the legal team challenging the Guantanamo prison camp, were not so much barred from flying as harassed whenever they tried to fly

Sometimes, as in the “non-flying nun’s” case, the harassment could involve being taken away to a room and questioned for so long she’d miss her flight to join some protest action, for example at the School of the Americas where she was a regular. Other times it was just a case of harassment.  Barbara, who at the time worked for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said she and her boss, the late CCR Director Michael Ratner,  both prominent civil liberties lawyers, joked that they had to allow extra time for every flight they went on because they were continually being pulled aside and searched – sometimes even strip searched – before being allowed to board.

So, after having flown for almost a decade without encountering any problems at TSA inspections, I’ve been alerted by this latest experience flying to Vienna for a week that I’m now back on that second list, and have to anticipate a regime of harassment when I travel by air. My guess is that  it was my impeachment book and perhaps an earlier book I wrote on the Bush/Cheney government’s attacks on civil liberties and its criminal wars on “Terror” and on Afghanistan and Iraq, that led to my first several years of inclusion on the list. Now I suspect it is my December article in the Nation magazine exposing the Pentagon’s fraudulent accounting, or perhaps another article run on a number of news sites exposing  the U.S. government’s decades-long effort, still underway, to develop the ability to launch a massive first-strike nuclear attack on Russia that could cripple any chance of Russia’s being able to counter with a significant retaliatory strike, that have put me back on it.

I’ll admit that it’s a pain in the ass to be hauled to the side at TSA checkpoints to be patted down and then forced to stand around while some glorified transit cop in a blue shirt paws grimly through my luggage. On the positive side, at least foreknowledge of being targeted forces one to get to the airport earlier in order to allow for the extra inspection time, with the side benefit being not being late and having to race down some long terminal hallway trying to get to a gate before boarding closes,

But my experience on this latest journey is also a reminder of how far we in the U.S. have gone down the road towards becoming a police state.

The proof that my being on a Homeland Security airport harassment list as opposed to a terrorist watch list, and that my inclusion on the former is all about my being a journalist and government critic, and has nothing to do with being actually suspected of potential terrorism, is this simple reality:  Though the authorities knew my wife and I were booked together for our Austria trip, no effort was made to check her suitcase or to have her remove her shoes for inspection (though she says they did run a device over her hands while she was waiting for my inspection, allegedly to see if there were traces of explosives).

Come to think of it, the several times I flew between the U.S. and Taiwan, sometimes with my wife and our then 11-year-old son, and sometimes just with my son, security personnel never checked any carry-on luggage other than the one bag I identified as mine. And of course, for all they knew I could have been misinforming them that the suitcase they were checking was mine.

The reason they are harassing me and other journalists like this is obvious. As with the journalists and lawyers we’ve learned that the government is tracking, questioning and even detaining as they try to cover and to defend immigrant asylum seekers at the southern US border, they are not afraid at all of what I might do on a plane.

It’s what I and other journalists do for a living that scares them.

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