Big Brother is Watching Everyone
1) GROUNDED: The Feds DO maintain an air travel
2) You Are a Suspect (New York Times)
3) DARPA'S TOTAL INFORMATION AWARENESS (SECRECY NEWS)
4) THE MYTH OF CYBERTERRORISM (SECRECY NEWS)
5) US Hopes to Check Computers Globally (Washington Post)
A federal agency confirms that it maintains an air-travel blacklist of
1,000 people. Peace activists and civil libertarians fear they're on it.
By Dave Lindorff
Nov. 15, 2002 | Barbara Olshansky was in Newark International Airport at
the JetBlue departure gate last March when an airline agent at the
counter checking her boarding pass called airport security. Olshansky
was subjected to a close search and then, though she was in view of
other travelers, was ordered to pull her pants down. The Sept. 11
terrorist attacks may have created a new era in airport security, but
even so, she was embarrassed and annoyed.
Perhaps one such incident might've been forgotten, but Olshansky, the
assistant legal director for the left-leaning Center for Constitutional
Rights, was pulled out of line for special attention the next time she
flew. And the next time. And the next time. 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. On that occasion, Olshansky got angry and
demanded to know why she had been singled out.
"The computer spit you out," she recalls the agent saying. "I
why, and I don't have time to talk to you about it."
Olshansky and her colleagues are, apparently, not alone. For months,
rumors and anecdotes have circulated among left-wing and other activist
groups about people who have been barred from flying or delayed at
security gates because they are "on a list."
But now, a spokesman for the new Transportation Security Administration
has acknowledged for the first time that the government has a list of
about 1,000 people who are deemed "threats to aviation" and not allowed
on airplanes under any circumstances. And in an interview with Salon,
the official suggested that Olshansky and other political activists may
be on a separate list that subjects them to strict scrutiny but allows
them to fly.
"We have a list of about 1,000 people," said David Steigman,
spokesman. The agency was created a year ago by Congress to handle
transportation safety during the war on terror. "This list is composed
of names that are provided to us by various government organizations
like the FBI, CIA and INS We don't ask how they decide who to list.
Each agency decides on its own who is a 'threat to aviation.'"
The agency has no guidelines to determine who gets on the list, Steigman
says, and no procedures for getting off the list if someone is
wrongfully on it.
Meanwhile, airport security personnel, citing lists that are provided by
the agency and that appear to be on airline ticketing and check-in
computers, seem to be netting mostly priests, elderly nuns, Green Party
campaign operatives, left-wing journalists, right-wing activists and
people affiliated with Arab or Arab-American groups.
Virgine Lawinger, a nun in Milwaukee and an activist with Peace Action,
a Catholic advocacy group, was stopped from boarding a flight last
spring to Washington, where she and 20 young students were planning to
lobby the Wisconsin congressional delegation against U.S. military aid
to the Colombian government. "We were all prevented from boarding, and
some of us were taken to another room and questioned by airport security
personnel and local sheriff's deputies," says Lawinger.
In that incident, an airline employee with Midwest Air and a local
sheriff's deputy who had been called in during the incident to help
airport security personnel detain and question the group, told some of
them that their names were "on a list," and that they were being kept
off their plane on instructions from the Transportation Security
Administration in Washington. Lawinger has filed a freedom-of-
information request with the Transportation Security Administration
seeking to learn if she is on a "threat to aviation" list.
Last month, Rebecca Gordon and Jan Adams, two journalists with a San
Francisco-based antiwar magazine called War Times were stopped at the
check-in counter of ATA Airlines, where an airline clerk told them that
her computer showed they were on "the FBI No Fly list." The airline
called the FBI, and local police held them for a while before telling
them there had been a mistake and that they were free to go. The two
made their plane, but not before the counter attendant placed a large S
for "search" on their baggage, assuring that they got more close
scrutiny at the boarding gate.
Art dealer Doug Stuber, who ran Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential
campaign in North Carolina in 2000, was barred last month from getting
on a flight to Hamburg, Germany, where he was going on business, after
he got engaged in a loud, though friendly, discussion with two other
passengers in a security line. During the course of the debate, he
shouted that "George Bush is as dumb as a rock," an unfortunate comment
that provoked the Raleigh-Durham Airport security staff to call the
local Secret Service bureau, which sent out two agents to interrogate
"They took me into a room and questioned me all about my politics,"
Stuber recalls. "They were very up on Green Party politics, too." They
fingerprinted him and took a digital eye scan. Particularly ominous, he
says, was a loose-leaf binder held by the 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, EarthFirst and Amnesty International."
Stuber was eventually released, but because he missed his flight, he had
to pay almost $2,000 for a full-fare ticket to Hamburg so that he did
not miss his business engagement.
A Secret Service agent at the agency's Washington headquarters confirmed
that his agency had been called in to question Stuber. "We're not
normally a part of the airport security operation," Agent Mark Connelly
told Salon. "That's the FBI's job. But when one of our protection
subjects gets threatened, we check it out." Asked about the list of
organizations observed by Stuber, the Secret Service source speculated
that those organizations might be on a list of organizations that the
service, which is assigned the task of protecting the president, might
need to monitor as part of its security responsibility.
Additional evidence suggests that Olshansky, Stuber and other left-
leaning activists are also seen as a threat to aviation, though perhaps
of a different grade. A top official for the Eagle Forum, an old-line
conservative group led by anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, said
several of the group's members have been delayed at security checkpoints
for so long that they missed their flights. According to Pax Christi, a
Catholic peace organization, an American member of the Falun Gong
Chinese religious group was barred from getting back on a plane that had
stopped in Iceland, reportedly based on information supplied to
Icelandic customs by U.S. authorities. The person was reportedly
permitted to fly onward on a later flight.
Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American Arab Anti-
Discrimination Committee, says his group has documented over 80 cases --
involving 200 people -- in which fliers with Arabic names have been
delayed at the airport, or barred altogether from flying. Some, he says,
appear to involve people who have no political involvement at all, and
he speculated that they suffered the misfortune of having the same name
as someone "on the list" for legitimate security reasons.
Until Steigman's confirmation of the no-fly list, the government had
never admitted its existence. While FBI spokesman Paul Bresson confirmed
existence of the list, officials at the CIA and U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service declined to comment and referred inquiries back
to the TSA. Details of how it was assembled and how it is being used by
the government, airports and airlines are largely kept secret.
A security officer at United Airlines, speaking on condition of
anonymity, confirmed that the airlines receive no-fly lists from the
Transportation Security Administration but declined further comment,
saying it was a security matter. A USAir spokeswoman, however, declined
to comment, saying that the airline's security relationship with the
federal transit agency was a security matter and that discussing it
could "jeopardize passenger safety."
Steigman declined to say who was on the no-fly list, but he conceded
that people like Lawinger, Stuber, Gordon, Adams and Olshansky were not
"threats to aviation," because they were being allowed to fly after
being interrogated and searched. But then, in a Byzantine twist, he
raised the possibility that the security agency might have more than one
list. "I checked with our security people," he said, "and they said
there is no [second] list," he said. "Of course, that could mean one of
two things: Either there is no second list, or there is a list and
they're not going to talk about it for security reasons."
In fact, most of those who have been stopped from boarding flights (like
Lawinger, Stuber, Gordon and Adams) were able to fly later. Obviously,
if the TSA thought someone was a genuine "threat to aviation" -- like
those on the 1,000-name no-fly list, they would simply be barred from
flying. So does the agency have more than one list perhaps -- one for
people who are totally barred from flying and another for people who are
simply harassed and delayed?
Asked why the TSA would be barring a 74-year-old nun from flying,
Steigman said: "I don't know. You could get on the list if you were
arrested for a federal felony."
Sister Lawinger says she was arrested only once, back in the 1980s, for
sitting down and refusing to leave the district office of a local
congressman. And even then, she says, she was never officially charged
or fined. But another person who was in the Peace Action delegation that
day, Judith Williams, says she was arrested and spent three days in jail
for a protest at the White House back in 1991. In that protest, Williams
and other Catholic peace activists had scaled the White House perimeter
fence and scattered baby dolls around the lawn to protest the bombing of
Iraq. She says that the charge from that incident was a misdemeanor, an
infraction that would not seem enough to establish her as a threat to
Inevitably, such questions about how one gets on a federal transit list
creates questions about how to get off it. It is a classic -- and
unnerving -- catch-22: Because the Transportation Security
Administration says it compiles the list from names provided by other
agencies, it has no procedure for correcting a problem. Aggrieved
parties would have to go to the agency that first reported their names,
but for security reasons, the TSA won't disclose which agency put
someone on the list.
Bresson, the FBI spokesperson, would not explain the criteria for
classifying someone as a threat to aviation, but suggests that fliers
who believe they're on the list improperly should "report to airport
security and they should be able to contact the TSA or us and get it
cleared up." He concedes that might mean missed flights or other
inconveniences. His explanation: "Airline security has gotten very
Many critics of the security agency's methods accept the need for
heightened air security, but remain troubled the more Kafka-esque traits
of the system. Waters, at the Eagle Forum, worries that the government
has offered no explanation for how a "threat to aviation" is determined.
"Maybe the people being stopped are already being profiled," she says.
"If they're profiling people, what kind of things are they looking for?
Whether you fit in in your neighborhood?"
"I agree that the government should be keeping known 'threats to
aviation' off of planes," Ibish says. "I certainly don't want those
people on my plane! But there has to be a procedure for appealing this,
and there isn't. There are no safeguards and there is no recourse."
Meanwhile, nobody in the federal government has explained why so many
law-abiding but mostly left-leaning political activists and antiwar
activists are being harassed at check-in time at airports. "This all
raises serious concerns about whether the government has made a decision
to target Americans based on their political beliefs," says Katie
Corrigan, an ACLU official. The ACLU has set up a No Fly List Complaint
Form on its Web site.
One particular concern about the government's threat to aviation list
and any other possible lists of people to be subjected to extra security
investigation at airports is that names are being made available to
private companies -- the airlines and airport authorities -- charged
with alerting security personnel. Unlike most other law-enforcement
watch lists, these lists are not being closely held within the national
security or law-enforcement files and computers, but are apparently
being widely dispersed.
"It's bad enough when the federal government has lists like this with
guidelines on how they're compiled or how to use them," says Olshansky
at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "But when these lists are then
given to the private sector, there are even less controls over how they
are used or misused." Noting that airlines have "a free hand" to decide
whether someone can board a plane or not, she says the result is a
"tremendous chilling of the First Amendment right to travel and speak
But Olshansky, alarmed by her own experience and the number of others
reporting apparent political harassment, is fighting back. She says now
that the government has confirmed the existence of a blacklist, her
center is planning a First Amendment lawsuit against the federal
government. CCR and has already signed up Lawinger, Stuber, and several
others from Milwaukee's Peace Action group.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
About the writer
Philadelphia-based journalist Dave Lindorff writes regularly for Salon.
Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine
subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site
you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you
receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every
event you attend _ all these transactions and communications will go
into what the Defense Department describes as "a virtual, centralized
To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial
sources, add every piece of information that government has about you
_ passport application, driver's license and bridge toll records,
judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the
., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera
surveillance _ and you have the supersnoop's dream: a "Total
Information Awareness" about every U.S. citizen.
This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario. It is what will happen to
your personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets
the unprecedented power he seeks.
Remember Poindexter? Brilliant man, first in his class at the Naval
Academy, later earned a doctorate in physics, rose to national
security adviser under President Ronald Reagan. He had this brilliant
idea of secretly selling missiles to Iran to pay ransom for hostages,
and with the illicit proceeds to illegally support contras in
A jury convicted Poindexter in 1990 on five felony counts of
misleading Congress and making false statements, but an appeals court
overturned the verdict because Congress had given him immunity for his
testimony. He famously asserted, "The buck stops here," arguing that
the White House staff, and not the president, was responsible for
fateful decisions that might prove embarrassing.
This ring-knocking master of deceit is back again with a plan even
more scandalous than Iran-contra. He heads the "Information Awareness
Office" in the otherwise excellent Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency, which spawned the Internet and stealth aircraft technology.
Poindexter is now realizing his 20-year dream: getting the
"data-mining" power to snoop on every public and private act of every
Even the hastily passed . Patriot Act, which widened the scope
of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and weakened 15 privacy
laws, raised requirements for the government to report secret
eavesdropping to Congress and the courts. But Poindexter's assault on
individual privacy rides roughshod over such oversight.
He is determined to break down the wall between commercial snooping
and secret government intrusion. The disgraced admiral dismisses such
necessary differentiation as bureaucratic "stovepiping." And he has
been given a $200 million budget to create computer dossiers on 300
When George W. Bush was running for president, he stood foursquare in
defense of each person's medical, financial and communications
privacy. But Poindexter, whose contempt for the restraints of
oversight drew the Reagan administration into its most serious
blunder, is still operating on the presumption that on such a sweeping
theft of privacy rights, the buck ends with him and not with the
This time, however, he has been seizing power in the open. In the past
week John Markoff of The Times, followed by Robert O'Harrow of The
Washington Post, have revealed the extent of Poindexter's operation,
but editorialists have not grasped its undermining of the Freedom of
Political awareness can overcome "Total Information Awareness,"
combined force of commercial and government snooping. In a similar
overreach, Attorney General Ashcroft tried his Terrorism Information
and Prevention System (TIPS), but public outrage at the use of gossips
and postal workers as snoops caused the House to shoot it down. The
Senate should now do the same to this other exploitation of fear.
The Latin motto over Poindexter"s new Pentagon office reads "Scientia
Est Potentia" _ "knowledge is power." Exactly: the government's
infinite knowledge about you is its power over you. "We're just as
concerned as the next person with protecting privacy," this brilliant
mind blandly assured The Post. A jury found he spoke falsely before.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working to
create a "visionary" new computer monitoring system known as "Total
Information Awareness" that would search for terrorists by probing
through networked databases of private "transactional" information.
"We must be able to detect, classify, identify and track terrorists
that we may understand their plans and act to prevent them from being
executed," said John Poindexter, director of the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Information Awareness Office.
"Total Information Awareness -- a prototype system -- is our answer,"
he said in an August 2 speech describing the initiative.
"If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks
against the United States, their people must engage in transactions
and they will leave signatures in this information space," Adm.
Of course, anyone who does anything must also "engage in transactions"
and "leave signatures," raising immediate questions about the
implications of Total Information Awareness for data security and
personal privacy, among other issues.
See Adm. Poindexter's August 2 speech here:
The new initiative was further described in "Pentagon Plans a Computer
System That Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans" by John Markoff
in the New York Times, November 9:
While computer security needs to be an everyday concern for anyone who
transmits or maintains valuable data online, "cyberterrorism" is a
word that has no right to exist.
"There is no such thing as cyberterrorism," writes Joshua Green.
There is "no instance of anyone ever having been killed by a
terrorist (or anyone else) using a computer."
Green's article "The Myth of Cyberterrorism" in the November
Washington Monthly marks the growing skepticism about the prospects
of an "electronic Pearl Harbor" and echoes a critique that has been
voiced notably by George Smith of The Crypt Newsletter for years.
A somewhat more credulous view of the subject was offered by the
Congressional Research Service in "Critical Infrastructure: Control
Systems and the Terrorist Threat," updated on October 1:
A new Pentagon research office has started designing a global computer surveillance system to give U.S. counterterrorism officials access to personal information in government and commercial databases around the world.
The Information Awareness Office, run by former national security adviser John M. Poindexter, aims to develop new technologies to sift through "ultra-large" data warehouses and networked computers in search of threatening patterns among everyday transactions, such as credit card purchases and travel reservations, according to interviews and documents.
Authorities already have access to a wealth of information about individual terrorists, but they typically have to obtain court approval in the United States or make laborious diplomatic and intelligence efforts overseas. The system proposed by Poindexter and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) at about $200 million a year, would be able to sweep up and analyze data in a much more systematic way. It would provide a more detailed look at data than the super-secret National Security Agency now has, the former Navy admiral said.
"How are we going to find terrorists and preempt them, except by following their trail," said Poindexter, who brought the idea to the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and now is beginning to award contracts to high-technology vendors.
"The problem is much more complex, I believe, than we've faced before," he said. "It's how do we harness with technology the street smarts of people on the ground, on a global scale."
Though formidable foreign policy and privacy hurdles remain before any prototype becomes operational, the initiative shows how far the government has come in its willingness to use information technology and expanded surveillance authorities in the war on terrorism.
Poindexter said it will take years to realize his vision, but the office has already begun providing some technology to government agencies. For example, Poindexter recently agreed to help the FBI build its data warehousing system. He's also spoken to the Transportation Security Administration about aiding its development of a massive passenger-profiling system.
In his first interview since he started the "information awareness" program, Poindexter, who figured prominently in the Iran-contra scandal more than a decade ago, said the systems under development would, among other things, help analysts search randomly for indications of travel to risky areas, suspicious e-mails, odd fund transfers and improbable medical activity, such as the treatments of anthrax sores. Much of the data would be collected through computer "appliances" -- some mixture of hardware and software -- that would, with permission of governments and businesses, enable intelligence agencies to routinely extract information.
Some specialists question whether the technology Poindexter envisions is even feasible, given the immense amount of data it would handle. Other question whether it is diplomatically possible, given the sensitivities about privacy around the world. But many agree, if implemented as planned, it probably would be the largest data surveillance system ever built.
Paul Werbos, a computing and artificial-intelligence specialist at the National Science Foundation, doubted whether such "appliances" can be calibrated to adequately filter out details about innocent people that should not be in the hands of the government. "By definition, they're going to send highly sensitive, private personal data," he said. "How many innocent people are going to get falsely pinged? How many terrorists are going to slip through?"
Former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a member of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, said there's no question about the need to use data more effectively. But he criticized the scope of Poindexter's program, saying it is "total overkill of intelligence" and a potentially "huge waste of money."
"There's an Orwellian concept if I've ever heard one," Hart said when told about the program.
Poindexter said any operational system would include safeguards to govern the collection of information. He said rules built into the software would identify users, create an audit trail and govern the information that is available. But he added that his mission is to develop the technology, not the policy. It would be up to Congress and policymakers to debate the issue and establish the limits that would make the system politically acceptable.
"We can develop the best technology in the world and unless there is public acceptance and understanding of the necessity, it will never be implemented," he said. "We're just as concerned as the next person with protecting privacy."
Getting the Defense Department job is something of a comeback for Poindexter. The Reagan administration national security adviser was convicted in 1990 of five felony counts of lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing congressional inquiries into the Iran-contra affair, which involved the secret sale of arms to Iran in the mid-1980s and diversion of profits to help the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral, was the highest-ranking Regan administration official found guilty in the scandal. He was sentenced to six months in jail by a federal judge who called him "the decision-making head" of a scheme to deceive Congress. The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that conviction in 1991, saying Poindexter's rights had been violated through the use of testimony he had given to Congress after being granted immunity.
In recent years, he has worked as a DARPA contractor at Syntek Technologies Inc., an Arlington consulting firm that helped develop technology to search through large amounts of data. Poindexter now has a corner office at a DARPA facility in Arlington. He still wears cuff links with the White House seal and a large ring from the Naval Academy, where he graduated at the top of his class in 1958.
As Poindexter views the plan, counterterrorism officials will use "transformational" technology to sift through almost unimaginably large amounts of data, something Poindexter calls "noise," to find a discernable "signal" indicating terrorist activity or planning. In addition to gathering data, the tools he is trying to develop would give analysts a way to visually represent what that information means. The system also would include the technology to identify people at a distance, based on known details about their faces and gaits.
He cited the recent sniper case as an example of something that would have benefited from such technology. The suspects' car, a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, was repeatedly seen by police near the shooting scenes. Had investigators been able to know that, Poindexter said, they might have detained the suspects sooner.
The office already has several substantial contracts in the works with
technology vendors. They include Hicks & Associates Inc., a national
security consultant in McLean; Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., a management and
technology consultant in McLean; and Ratheon Corp., a technology company
that will provide search and data-mining tools. "Poindexter made the
argument to the right players, so they asked him back into the government,"
said Mike McConnell, a vice president at Booz Allen and former director
of the NSA.
The office already has an emblem that features a variation of the great seal of the United States: An eye looms over a pyramid and appears to scan the world. The motto reads: Scientia Est Potentia, or "knowledge is power."