After more than a year of complaints by some US anti-war activists that they were being unfairly targeted by airport security, Washington has admitted the existence of a list, possibly hundreds or even thousands of names long, of people it deems worthy of special scrutiny at airports.
The list had been kept secret until its disclosure last week by the new US agency in charge of aviation safety, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). And it is entirely separate from the relatively well-publicised "no-fly" list, which covers about 1,000 people believed to have criminal or terrorist ties that could endanger the safety of their fellow passengers.
The strong suspicion of such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is suing the government to try to learn more, is that the second list has been used to target political activists who challenge the government in entirely legal ways. The TSA acknowledged the existence of the list in response to a Freedom of Information Act request concerning two anti-war activists from San Francisco who were stopped and briefly detained at the airport last autumn and told they were on an FBI no-fly list.
The activists, Rebecca Gordon and Jan Adams, work for a small pacifist magazine called War Times and say they have never been arrested, let alone have criminal records. Others who have filed complaints with the ACLU include a left-wing constitutional lawyer who has been strip-searched repeatedly when travelling through US airports, and a 71-year-old nun from Milwaukee who was prevented from flying to Washington to join an anti-government protest.
It is impossible to know for sure who might be on the list, or why. The ACLU says a list kept by security personnel at Oakland airport ran to 88 pages. More than 300 people have been subject to special questioning at San Francisco airport, and another 24 at Oakland, according to police records. In no case does it appear that a wanted criminal was apprehended.
The ACLU's senior lawyer on the case, Jayashri Srikantiah, said she is troubled by several answers that the TSA gave to her questions. The agency, she said, had no way of making sure that people did not end up on the list simply because of things they had said or organisations they belonged to. Once people were on the list, there was no procedure for trying to get off it. The TSA did not even think it was important to keep track of people singled out in error for a security grilling. According to documents the agency released, it saw "no pressing need to do so".
It is not just left-wingers who feel unfairly targeted. Right-wing civil libertarians have spoken out against the secret list, and at least one conservative organisation, the Eagle Forum, says its members have been interrogated by security staff.
The complaints by the ACLU form part of a pattern of protest since the 11 September attacks, with the Bush administration repeatedly under fire for detaining people on the flimsiest of grounds in the name of the "war on terror". Many Muslims have had a hard time, especially if they have a surname such as Hussein.Reuse content