Naomi Wolf: Are You on the Government’s List?


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Are You on the Government's 'No Fly' List?
By Naomi Wolf, Chelsea Green Publishing
Posted on September 13, 2007, Printed on September 15, 2007

The following excerpt is from Naomi Wolf's latest book, End of America: Letter 
of Warning to a Young Patriot (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007) and is used by 
permission of the publisher. In this timely call to arms, Wolf compels us to 
face the way our freedoms are under assault, and that each of the ten classic 
steps used by dictators to close down open societies are underway in the United 
States today.


The Press Department of the Foreign Ministry judged that ... I was urging the 
"spread of counterrevolutionary developments in the GDR." Because of the role I 
was clearly playing "in the ideological war of imperialist media against the 
GDR" I should be placed on the list ... -- Timothy Garton Ash

Protest has been lively in our nation throughout most of our history because 
being free means that you can't be detained arbitrarily. We have also felt free 
in the security of our homes, believing that the state can't break in and go 
through our possessions. All that is changing.

The List

In 2002, I began to notice that almost every time I sought to board a domestic 
airline flight, I was called aside by the Transportation Security Administration
and given a more thorough search. When this was happening on nine flights out of
ten, I asked the officials about the special search. They told me that the 
search was due to the quadruple "S" that routinely came up on my boarding pass. 
There are several reasons why one might receive a quadruple "S" on one's 
boarding pass if one doesn't fit a terrorist profile: buying a ticket at the 
last minute, for instance, or paying in cash. But those circumstances didn't 
apply to me. I kept asking, but not getting real answers.

This stepped-up search became so routine as I traveled that companions who were 
flying with me began to simply say, "I'll meet you at the gate," even before we 
got through the security line.

On yet another preboarding search, I asked yet again. The TSA agent searching 
me, a young woman, said pleasantly, "You're on the list."

"The list?" I asked. "What list?" Her supervisor abruptly ended our exchange, 
took over from her, and then moved me on.

Indeed, the TSA Administration does keep a "list." The American citizens on the 
list who do not fit a terrorist profile range from journalists and academics who
have criticized the White House to activists and even political leaders who have
also spoken out.

These TSA searches and releases would be trivial in a working democracy. In the 
1960s, peace activists found it merely irksome to be trailed by FBI agents, and 
in the 1980s those who organized The Committee in Solidarity with the People of 
El Salvador (CISPES) on college campuses were even amused sometimes to find, on 
submitting a Freedom of Information Act request, that there was a file open on 
them. But once the first steps in a fascist shift are in place, being on "the 
list" is not really funny any more.

When you are physically detained by armed agents because of something that you 
said or wrote, it has an impact. On the one hand, during these heightened 
searches of my luggage, I knew I was a very small fish in a very big pond. On 
the other hand, you get it right away that the state is tracking your journeys, 
can redirect you physically, and can have armed men and women, who may or may 
not answer your questions, search and release you.

Our faith in nonarbitrary "safe" detention helps to make us Americans. When I 
was twenty, I joined a group of graduate students who traveled from Oxford to 
London to get arrested. We all went over to the American embassy: There we sat, 
self-consciously, on the chilly concrete steps, with our "U.S. OUT OF EL 
SALVADOR" banner unfurled on our knees. A police van arrived. Bored British 
police officers took us away. We were locked up for a few hours and then, of 
course, released.

"Silly season," one of the bobbies commented civilly as he signed the paperwork 
that let us go. I wasn't scared to speak out because I was in a democracy and 
the rule of law protected me.

That kind of experience of accountable detention and release is eroding in 
America. Activists are not being beaten. But they are being watched, and 
sometimes intimidatingly detained and released.

In America, people are not supposed to be detained because of their political 
beliefs. But Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, the liberal senator from 
Massachusetts who is a thorn in the side of the Bush administration, was 
detained five times in East Coast airports in March, 2004. Democratic 
Congressman John Lewis of Georgia has also been subjected to extra security 

On September 21, 2004, U.S. security officials diverted to Bangor, Maine, a 
United Airlines flight from London to Washington D.C. On board was Usef Islam, 
once known as the singer Cat Stevens. Customs and Border Protection agents 
questioned him on "national security grounds." Most Americans associate Cat 
Stevens not with bomb-building in al-Qaeda training camps, but with slowdancing 
to "Wild World" in suburban rec rooms. Islam's detention helps "blur the line"--
he is "one of us."

Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon, American peace activists, tried to check in at the
San Francisco airport for a trip to Boston in August 2002. Airport personnel who
said that these middle-aged women were on the "master list" called the police 
and notified the FBI. At least twenty other peace activists are confirmed to be 
on the list: A 74-year-old Catholic nun who works for peace was detained in 
Milwaukee; Nancy Oden, a leader of the Green Party, was prevented from flying 
from Maine to Chicago.

Free speech advocates are on the list: King Downing of the ACLU was detained in 
the Boston airport in 2003. David Fathi, also of the ACLU, was detained as well.
Scholars who defend the Constitution are on the list: in 2007, Professor Walter 
F. Murphy, emeritus of Princeton, one of the nation's foremost Constitutional 
scholars, who had recently spoken critically of Bush's assault on the 
Constitution, was detained for being on a "watch list." A TSA official confirmed
informally that it was probably because Murphy had criticized the President, and
warned him that his luggage would be ransacked.

In 2005, "Evo Morales"-- which is the name of the President of Bolivia, who has 
criticized Bush-appeared on the list, beside President Morales' birthdate. After
Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, gave a speech at the United Nations 
criticizing Bush, Chavez's foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, was detained at 
Kennedy Airport. When Maduro explained that he was Venezuela's foreign minister,
he said that officers "threatened and shoved" him. According to President 
Chavez, the officers accused Maduro of participating in terrorist acts. The 
chilling effect from this last example could be profound: Any staffer of any 
foreign government or international regulatory body can be detained.

Now, there are tens of thousands of people on the list.

Where did the list come from? In 2003, President Bush had the intelligence 
agencies and the FBI create a "watch list" of people thought to have terrorist 
intentions or contacts. These agencies gave the list to the TSA and the 
commercial airlines. 60 Minutes got one copy of the list: It was 540 pages long.
That list of people to be taken aside for extra screening had 75,000 names on 

The more stringent "no-fly list" had 45,000 names; before 9/11 there were just 
16 names. The list is so secret that even Congresspeople have been prevented 
from looking at it. People on the list endure searches that can last for hours. 
One American citizen, Robert Johnson, described "the humiliation factor" of 
being strip-searched: "I had to take off my pants. I had to take off my 
sneakers, then I had to take off my socks. I was treated like a criminal." Donna
Bucella, who was at that time head of the FBI program that oversaw the list, 
told 60 Minutes, "Well, Robert Johnson will never get off the list."

On December 6, 2006, Democrats in Congress tried to find out more about recent 
reports that the Department of Homeland Security "was using a scoring system" 
that rated the dangers posed by people crossing American borders. The Democrats 
were worried that these lists did not simply keep people from flying-they could 
keep them from getting jobs as well.

According to the New York Times, Vermont Senator Patrick J. Leahy said that "the
program and broader government data-mining efforts could make it more difficult 
for innocent Americans to travel or to get a job -- without giving them the 
chance to know why they were labeled a security risk." So now there is not just 
the anxiety that you might be detained-you could also, if you are on certain 
secret lists, be turned down for a job and never know why.

Being on the list can get also get some people detained and tortured -- although
they are innocent.

Maher Arar is a Canadian citizen, a software consultant, husband, and father -- 
a North American yuppie. The United States detained Arar when he was changing 
planes at Kennedy Airport in 2002. He was "rendered" to Syria. Security forces 
there kept him in prison for over a year, beating him repeatedly with a heavy 
metal cable. The Canadian government pursued a two-year investigation and 
concluded that it had all been a terrible mistake -- Arar actually had no ties 
to terrorists whatsoever. Canadians were so appalled by this miscarriage of 
justice that the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police resigned. After he 
was released with his government's help, Arar, emboldened perhaps by living in a
working North American democracy, sued the U.S. government.

The Bush administration refused to concede that it had been wrong; refused to 
provide documents or witnesses to the Canadian investigators; and finally 
announced in January 2007 that they had "secret information" that justified 
keeping Arar on the list.

So Arar, a North American citizen like you or me, has to live in fear, perhaps 
for the rest of his life (his CCR lawyer says he suffers from post-traumatic 
stress): Arar turns down offers to receive honors overseas, for whenever he 
travels -- if he dares to -- over borders, he fears being taken off the plane or
train, shipped to another country and subjected to torture again.

Making it more difficult for people out of favor with the state to travel back 
and forth across borders is a classic part of the fascist playbook. As Nazi 
Germany closed down, borders tightened and families fleeing internment were 
traumatized by the uncertainties that they knew they faced at the borders. When 
reporter Timothy Garton Ash published essays that offended the Stasi, he was 
forbidden to re-enter the GDR. The United States has recently been refusing 
visas to various respected Muslim scholars from universities such as Oxford -- 
scholars with no ties whatsoever to terrorists -- because they have been 
critical of U.S. policy. This has happened before in America: in the 1950s the 
FBI confiscated the passports of intellectuals and journalists who had been 
critical of anticommunist witch hunts.

William Shirer described the tension of airport searches of suspect individuals 
-- reporters -- in Berlin in 1938:

        Hans Kaltenborn, our star foreign news commentator,
        was turned back by the secret police when he arrived
        at Tempelhof [airport] from London this afternoon.
        ... I became suspicious when the passport officials
        continued to hold him after all the other passengers
        had been cleared. ... [Kaltenborn's] German
        relatives, who were exposing themselves to possible
        arrest by merely being there, remained bravely at
        the rail. I finally complained to a Gestapo man
        about keeping us standing so long. ... [A] Gestapo
        officer came up and announced that Hans would be
        taking the six o'clock plane back to London.
        "Why, he's just come from there," I spoke up.

        "And he's returning there now," the officer said.

        "May I ask why?" Hans said, boiling inside but cool
        outside, though beads of sweat bubbled out on his

        The officer had a ready answer: Looking in his
        notebook, he said with tremendous seriousness: "Herr
        Kaltenborn, on such and such a date in Oklahoma
        City, you made a speech insulting the Furhrer."

        "Let me see the text of that, please," Hans spoke
        up. But you do not argue with the Gestapo. ... Hans
        was hustled out. ... Then he disappeared.

Are the cases we hear of Americans being caught up in detention, searches, and 
releases merely Homeland Security or TSA zealotry? Or are the stories effective 
PR about a new reality? Fascist propagandists target individuals, detain and 
release them, and then publicize the stories. Could all these -- Bensman the 
fish defender and Cat Stevens the balladeer and the little elderly nun and the 
lady peace activists -- be victims not of simple clumsiness but, rather, 
examples of the fact that perfectly ordinary Americans can now get entangled in 
the increasingly punitive apparatus of the state?

Could what happened to Maher Arar happen to a U.S. citizen? Chaplain James Yee 
was arrested and investigated on suspicion of "espionage and possibly treason" 
on September 10, 2003. It is not widely reported that he had also spoken up on 
behalf of better treatment for the detainees in Guantánamo. Military officials 
claimed that Yee had classified documents that included diagrams of cells at 
Guantánamo and lists of detainees. He was also said to have "ties to [radical 
Muslims in the U.S.]."

Chaplain Yee was taken to a navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina, and 
interrogated. He was blindfolded; his ears were blocked; he was manacled and 
then put into solitary confinement for seventy-six days; forbidden mail, 
television, or anything to read except the Koran. His family was not allowed to 
visit him. He was demonized on TV, radio, and the Internet and accused of being 
an operative in "a supposed spy ring that aimed to pass secrets to al- Qaeda 
from suspected terrorists held at Guantánamo. ... Court papers said he would be 
charged with espionage, spying, aiding the enemy, mutiny or sedition, and 
disobeying an order." Chaplain Yee, born in New Jersey and raised a Lutheran 
before he converted to Islam, was baffled at the accusations. His lawyers were 
told he could face execution.Within six months, the U.S. government had dropped 
all criminal charges against Yee. But the government said it did so to avoid 
making its sensitive evidence public, not because Yee is innocent.

Yee was released -- but charged with what looked like punitive "Mickey Mouse" 
charges: "adultery, lying to investigators and two counts of downloading porn." 
In the presence of his humiliated wife and his four-year-old daughter, military 
prosecutors compelled Navy Lt . Karyn Wallace to testify about their 
extramarital affair. The military rarely prosecutes adultery. The government 
never presented the evidence on which it based its first accusations against 
Yee. But after Yee was set free, he was placed "under a new Army order not to 
talk about his ordeal in any way that might be seen as critical to the 
military." If he says anything negative about what happened to him, he faces 
further prosecution.

(In 2007, Lieutenant Colonel William H. Steele, who like Chaplain Yee has spoken
up for a more humane situation for the detainees, would also find himself 
accused of "aiding the enemy," for various charges, and facing possible 

So in Yee's case a United States citizen innocent of the initial charges was 
kept in solitary confinement, this time for 76 days. His name was destroyed, his
family humiliated-and he can't talk about it or he will be arrested again.

On July 24, 2006, Chaplain Yee said he had been detained once again, this time 
at the Canadian border as he was trying to come home after a trip to Vancouver 
to see a performance. Yee was questioned for two hours. You can imagine how that
"Come with us" might have felt.

In Germany, by 1933, arbitrary arrest and release was common. On November, 27, 
1938, two police officers came to Victor Klemperer's house to search for 
weapons. As they ransacked the possessions of the two middle-aged German Jews, 
Mrs. Klemperer made the mistake of asking them not to go through the linen 
cupboard with unwashed hands. Professor Klemperer was taken into custody and 
released: "[A]t four o'clock I was on the street with the curious feeling, 
free-but for how long?" (In 1941, Klemperer would spend eight days in prison for
forgetting to close the curtains on his windows for the blackout.)

The charges against those taken into custody and then released were often vague 
and uncontestable. In a survey of German citizens who had lived through that 
era, 36 percent reported having been arrested, questioned, and released. A 
well-known Cologne priest who was outspoken about the Nazis was arrested and 
released repeatedly. As the 1930s progressed hundreds of thousands of German 
citizens were arbitrarily detained and released. General Pinochet used this 
tactic too: Every so often the military would enter a slum, arrest people in 
random sweeps, keep them behind bars briefly, and then let them go. The only 
real reason was to intimidate the population.

Naomi Wolf is the author of 'The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young 
Patriot' (Chelsea Green, 2007).

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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