Friday, July 25, 2003

TSA's No Fly List

There was some discussion awhile back on the Internet about the U.S. airline security people scrutinizing political activists before flying that kind of disappeared when people blew off the rumor to be an Urban myth. Recent document released this week by the TSA however confirm for the first time that the TSA not only keeps a list of potential terrorists, but also a list of "selectees." I am posting the entire text of the article from below, or if you want, you can click on the link and get a free-day pass to the view the peice, if you don't subscribe to salon premium.

July 25, 2003 | Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reports have circulated that the U.S. airline security apparatus is targeting political activists for strict scrutiny and special searches, sometimes forcing them to miss flights. Despite the accounts of peace activists, civil liberties lawyers and left-wing journalists, federal agencies wouldn't confirm the policy and airline officials wouldn't discuss it, and so the stories had the feel of urban legend.

But in documents released this week in a federal court case in San Francisco, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) confirmed for the first time that it keeps not just a list of potential terrorists barred from the air, but also a list of "selectees" who are subject to strict security checks before they're allowed to board commercial aircraft. The agency has revealed almost nothing else about the selectee list, and is fighting in court to keep secret the names of people who are on it and the standards for putting them there.

It appears, however, that the list may contain thousands of names. Officials at the ACLU of Northern California, which is pressing the Freedom of Information Act case filed by two leftist newspaper editors, says it learned from authorities at Oakland Airport that there is an 88-page typed list of names. Between Sept. 11, 2001, and April 8, 2003, the ACLU says, more than 363 passengers were stopped at San Francisco and Oakland airports, either because their names appeared on that list or because their names were similar to names on a separate "no-fly" list made up of criminals and people with suspected terrorist ties.

Evidence compiled in a series of interviews suggests that activists on the left and right have been affected, as have many Arab Americans. That has civil liberties experts warning that the airport security checks have a chilling effect on routine political activity that is unprecedented in recent times.

"All the secrecy surrounding these lists, and the very fact that the TSA refuses to say how it compiles them, is outrageous," says Barbara Olshansky, an attorney with the left-leaning Center for Constitutional Rights. "It shows that this administration has no respect at all for the Bill of Rights, which guarantees the right of free speech and association and the right to travel freely. They're not balancing security and freedom. They don't care about freedom and civil liberties at all."

Olshansky has firsthand knowledge of the government policy: She says that she's been subjected to strip- and full-body searches every time she's flown since 9/11, even though she has no criminal record. Last November, she told Salon that she had been strip-searched on four flights she'd made on business; this week, she reported that she was specially targeted again for a search in February while trying to board a plane with her husband for a vacation trip to Puerto Rico.

"We had chosen Puerto Rico in part because my husband was afraid of what they'd do to me if we tried to return from a foreign trip," she says. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is a domestic flight that doesn't require going through immigration or customs.

Salon first reported last November that the Transportation Security Administration keeps a list of about 1,000 people who are deemed "threats to aviation" -- many with links to terrorism -- and who are barred from flying under any circumstance. But that didn't seem to explain the unusual security standards applied to political activists and others with no visible link to terrorism or criminal activity. They were generally allowed to board planes after being searched.

A 71-year-old Milwaukee nun and peace activist was stopped from boarding a flight to Washington, where she and a group of students planned to lobby the Wisconsin congressional delegation against U.S. military aid to Colombia. An art dealer who'd been a high-ranking staffer in Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential campaign had been barred from a flight to Germany after telling other passengers in the check-in line that President George W. Bush "is dumb as a rock." And two journalists, Rebecca Gordon and Jan Adams of the antiwar magazine War Times, were told by an airline clerk that the were on "the FBI no-fly list." Even executives at the Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly's old-school conservative group, expressed concern that several of their members had missed flights because they were delayed and questioned at airport security checkpoints.

At the time, a spokesman for the TSA told Salon that in all likelihood, most such passengers were not on the no-fly list for terrorists and criminals. Instead, he hinted, there might be a second list, but he declined to be more specific and the agency officially denied it.

Efforts by the Wall Street Journal to solve the mystery resulted in an April 22 story concluding that most of the problems innocent fliers experienced resulted from computer systems that were "flagging numerous travelers whose names are merely similar to one of those on the [no-fly] list" for terrorists and criminals. For example, the story said, Sister Virgine Lawinger, the Milwaukee nun, had been stopped not because of her politics but because one of the students in her group had the surname of Laden -- a name the TSA flagged apparently because it is shared by a notorious Islamic terrorist.

Certainly that explains some of the stops. In one case, the Journal suggested, retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Larry Musarra has been stopped several times by Alaska Airlines check-in clerks because his name pops up on the list thanks to the M-U-S that begins his name; airline computers apparently flag that as a possible Middle Eastern name. But all too often, people being stopped have anti-establishment protest backgrounds, like Olshansky, whose name doesn't seem to resemble that of any terror suspects, and who has never been offered an explanation for the repeated security delays at check-in.

The Journal article made no reference to a second list.

Gordon and Adams, working with the ACLU, filed suit in federal court in San Francisco. The Transportation Security Administration, established in November 2001 to provide security for the nation's transportation system, acknowledged for the first time earlier this week, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ACLU on Gordon's and Adams' behalf, that it has developed and maintains two lists of people that it considers risks to air travel -- the no-fly list, and a list of selectees who are subject to "special security checks" but who can be allowed to board.

On Friday, Gordon and Adams will attempt to learn more when ACLU attorney Jayashri Srikantiah is expected to ask U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer to order the TSA and the FBI to produce more detailed information about how the list is compiled and what guidelines and procedures it has in place, and what instruction it gives to airlines when it provides them with the lists for its check-in computers.

Adams, 56, recounted her airport stop in an interview this week with Salon. "We were held by the local police, who said that we weren't under arrest, but were being held until they could check to see if we were on a 'master list,'" she said. "If we were, they said that we'd have to be held until the FBI decided what to do with us. But we apparently weren't on that list, and so they finally let us fly.

"The funny thing," she added, "is that nobody bothered us on our return flight on the same airline. But much later, I had the same thing happen as I was boarding a flight in Chicago. It doesn't make you very confident about the TSA's security operation."

Srikantiah says that to date the TSA has not even confirmed whether the two plaintiffs are on either of its lists. "They have not been very forthcoming with information in response to our FOIA request," she said. But what the agency has said -- and has left unsaid -- worries her.

"We asked them whether people could be placed on the lists for constitutionally protected activities like publishing an anti-government newspaper or participating in protest activities," she said, "and they declined to respond. That is troubling because they should be saying that constitutionally protected activities will not land someone on a watch list."

Liberals aren't the only ones concerned about what the TSA is doing. "It's pretty clear that some lefties have missed their flights just because of things they've said," says Larry Pratt, executive director of the ultraconservative Gun Owners of America organization. "This kind of thing should not be happening to American citizens. I think there's something smelly about the explanations being given by the TSA."

William Olson, a constitutional lawyer in McLean, Va., who specializes in conservative issues and clients, expresses similar concern about the security lists. "Certainly the ability of an American citizen to travel freely is among the most fundamental civil liberties," Olson said. "Lists like this, where no one is accountable for who gets on it, and where there's no way to get off it once you're on, are a bad thing, and bring to mind a police state. You do get the sense these days that the rule of law is crumbling."

Last November, when Salon broke the story that the Transportation Security Administration might have two flight-security lists, a spokesman at the agency explained that it doesn't generate the names, but rather compiles the names from lists provided by other federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The spokesman said at that time that the agency itself had no guidelines for putting someone's name on the list, and no procedures for people wrongfully placed on the list to get off.

The ACLU's Srikantiah says that opens the door to abuses. "There should be uniform guidelines for a list like this, and standard procedures for the airlines to follow when someone's name appears on a list," she said. The dangers such lists pose is compounded, she adds, because they are being provided to the airlines, private companies in which employees are not trained in law enforcement.

Even after the administration acknowledged the existence of the two lists, the FBI declined to be specific about what guidelines govern who gets placed on either list. To get onto the no-fly list, said FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza, "someone would have to be linked to terrorism, based upon an FBI investigation.

"Of course, there are other agencies that might input names to that list, and I can't answer for them," Lanza added. "But nobody would be put on that list simply for engaging in constitutionally protected activity or for being arrested at a protest."

For the selectee list, Lanza said, "There are more databases they pull from. Those names wouldn't have to be approved by someone on the terrorism task force. It's slightly broader. But protest activity alone still shouldn't put you on it." At another point, however, Lanza suggested that some activities, such as "chaining yourself to a gate at a military base and blocking traffic" might be different, even if they had no connection with violent or terrorist activity.

Adams isn't so sure, and she wonders whether First Amendment activities alone could get someone blacklisted. "Rebecca and I are two middle-class white ladies," she says. "We don't have arrest records. Our only activity is War Times."

In its response to the ACLU's Freedom of Information action, the TSA declined to say that individuals would not be placed on a selectee list simply for anti-government speech or protest activity. And though the agency has conceded that many names are mistakenly on the list because of glitches in airline computer software and other reasons, it also said it doesn't track how many times air travelers have been incorrectly stopped, saying there is "no pressing need to do so."

Sometimes the stops discovered by the ACLU at Bay Area airports have been humorous, and suggest that the lists could use some refinement and updating. One flier with the unfortunate surname of Padilla was stopped at a Southwest Airlines gate. He was allowed to board after the FBI determined that the Padilla in question -- accused "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla -- was already in custody and being held as an enemy combatant in a military brig in South Carolina. A passenger with the name Hussein was stopped at a Southwest Airlines gate and barred from boarding. After the FBI was called in, he was allowed to fly on.

Efforts over this week to get a response from the Transportation Security Administration went unanswered. A receptionist at the agency advised several times that "everyone is busy."

The Ever Evolving Asian Cool

Awesome and informative article in today's Guardian Unlimited not just describing the change that has arisen among diasporic South Asians, but going quite into depth about the change of perspective on being Asian and its evolution into this new Asian cool phenomenon. I often discuss the theme of it now finally being cool to be South Asian, but those not ever part of a minority group, in a country that at times can feel quite foreign, can not revel in how nice it feels to finally be, not just accepted but recognized as an integram part of our new country and its ever-evolving culture.

It isn't just that Panjabi MC is now on MTV, or that Bend it Like Beckham is in movie theatres everywhere, it is that these things signify a greater acceptance of South Asian. Important aspects of South Asian culture are now able to come to the forefront: Religions of South Asia can be discussed by Western youth without jokes being made about deities with numerous hands, or bowing to prayer five times a day. It is the acceptance of non-Western languages, non-Western food, non-Western culture, in Western popular culture that is exciting. Essentially, it is the acceptance of Asians, and Asian culture into American life, an acceptance that from my experience, did not exist 10 years ago, and for those of us that went to school during this transition period, it is in the words of Jassi's dad from Bend it Like Beckham, "truly brilliant!"

Anyway, it seems that I have gotten a bit off topic--if you are in the UK, check out the The Changing Faces exhibition sponsored by O2 mobile communication.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Panjabi MC's next single

For those of you wanting to see the video for PMC's next single, "Jogi," you can see it streaming in real player and windows media from MTV France. The option on the left is for those who have high speed connections. I just saw the video, and I like this video better than the one for Mundian to Bach Ke. Also, in case you were unsure, the DJ in the video is not Panjabi MC.

IDIOT alert

I am sorry, I don't usually call people names, but the headline from today's Washington Post regarding Utah Senator Orrin Hatch's desire to loosen gun restricition legislation in Washington D.C. strikes me as uber-absurd and reaks of stupidity and hypocrisy by Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It also merits some namecalling.

The D.C. Personal Protection Act, introduced Tuesday by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would repeal the District's ban on handguns, end strict registration requirements for ammunition and other firearms, and lift prohibitions on the possession or carrying of weapons at homes and workplaces. The legislation also would loosen the District's definition of a machine gun, possession of which is subject to additional sanction. The term now includes many semiautomatic weapons. Although the District's 1976 gun law has been a frequent target of gun rights activists, it has withstood assaults as recently as 1999, when the House of Representatives failed to enact national gun-control legislation that included its repeal. But the involvement of Hatch, a senior Senate Republican leader, and the recent success of congressional candidates supported by gun rights groups provide fresh impetus for a showdown over gun limits in the nation's capital. Hatch said congressional repeal of the District laws was needed to enforce the constitutional right to bear arms. "It is time to restore the rights of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and to defend their families against murderous predators," said Hatch, whose bill has 18 co-sponsors. "Try to imagine the horror that [a] victim felt when he faced a gun-toting criminal and could not legally reach for a firearm to protect himself." According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, the District's per-capita murder rate hovered between third- and seventh-highest from 1994 to 2001 among cities with more than 100,000 residents. Calling the District the "murder capital of the United States," Hatch said the gun prohibition is "as ineffective and deplorable as it is unconstitutional."

Here are a couple of my issues: First, senator Hatch should spend his time trying to better the State of Utah, instead of meddling in the affairs of DC. Secondly, I doubt the reintroduction of machine guns, semiautomatic guns, or more handguns in the city will help the murder rate in the Nation's Capital. Third, there is a reason the District of Columbia has a ban on handguns, has strict registration requirements for ammunition and other firearms, and has prohibitions on the possession or carrying of weapons at homes and workplaces (these are all items that Hatch has reintroduced in legislation entitled, "The D.C. Personal Protection Act." By the way the legislation also would loosen the District's definition of a machine gun, possession of which is subject to additional sanction. The term now includes many semiautomatic weapons.

Really, what is Senator Hatch thinking? Has his desire to be a singer clouded his judement and ability to reason? It is ironic how all of the DC rep's, the ones that actually live and have a stake in the viability of Washington D.C. are against this.

District officials including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) oppose the legislation. Norton said the Hatch bill launches a second assault on home rule, citing President Bush's plan to introduce a national school voucher pilot program in the District this fall. The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote today on a $40 million plan for vouchers and public schools. "The District is being targeted on guns for the same reason that it was targeted on vouchers -- because we are helpless without senators and the full panoply of legal rights to protect ourselves," Norton said, adding that citizens would be placed in the line of fire to placate an interest group. "The only thing that would cause more murder and mayhem in this city is allowing freer access to guns."

Here are more reasons why DC needs some actual representation in Congress!

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Indians Second Largest Immigrant Group to America

Interesting report from the Times of India indicating that India accounts for second largest number of legal immigrants to the United States even after the post 9/11 hysteria that has taken over the United States with regards to South Asians and immigration in itself.

"According to the latest report from the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), more than one million persons legally immigrated to the United States in fiscal year 2002, about the same number as the previous year, of which 71,105 people were Indians. Five countries accounted for 40 percent of immigrants. Mexico accounted for the largest number of legal immigrants with 219,380, followed by India, The People's Republic of China (61,282), Philippines (51,308) and Vietnam (33,627). The bureau said of the total number of legal immigrants, 384,427 obtained their immigrant visas abroad, and 653,259 were already living in the United States and became permanent residents by applying for adjustment of status with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) -- which became BCIS when the Department of Homeland Security was created earlier this year."

Monday, July 14, 2003

Back to Reality

Well, I have finally returned. It was hard. Actually, it was really, really hard. My travelmates and I were really close to changing our minds about coming back to DC -and work- before we departed from Honolulu. It was hard to leave, but the vacation was amazing. I will try and post pictures soon, I just have to pick the right ones I guess--We walked on lava and an active volcano on the Hawaii-or the Big Island--as it is also known. We went hiking in Kauai's Kalalau trail, snorkeled and swam with endangered sea turtles, hung out on the beach, read, ate really good food, including some of the best papaya I have ever had, and of course, listened to some good music, obiously involving America, and Hip-Hop's newest idol, Panjabi MC (link is for a rather in-depth peice in the Washington Post), and a new CD by DJ Cheb i Sabbah, both of which I really enjoyed.

Here are links to PMC's and Cheb i Sabbah's amazon pages in case you want to purchase either's work. You should buy them both--you gotta represent for the Des.

Incidentally, I have been reading a lot of articles lately on PM--also known as Rajinder Rai-- and everyone seems to use Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On" as a point of reference for South Asian sounds in American hip-hop. My understanding was that Missy Elliot too got the now-famous beat from Panjabi MC, who uses the same refrain in his more drum-and-base song "Mahi."

American Claims regarding the War on Iraq

It also seems that American claims regarding the war on Iraq are also being scrutinized by the press (finally.) I returned to find this Rumsfeld quote only in the Washington Times (surprise, surprise)

The United States went to war in Iraq not because of new intelligence about banned weapons but because Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's previously known programs were viewed differently after the September 11 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told senators yesterday. "The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light, through the prism of our experience on September 11th." In a wide-ranging hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Rumsfeld defended the war and the U.S. intelligence used to justify it.
"The objective in the global war on terror is to prevent another attack like September 11th, or a biological, nuclear or chemical attack that would be worse, before it happens. We can say with confidence that the world is a better place today because the United States led a coalition of forces into action in Iraq," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

I think that alone is call for wider scutiny, not just of the Uranium from Niger, but other reasons that were purported as fact.

No Indian Troops for Iraq

A surprisingly strong and independent decision today by India with regards to sending Indian troops to Iraq, reports the Washington Post.

After weeks of high-level discussions with the United States, India today rejected an American request to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq, saying it would only consider doing so under an "explicit" U.N. mandate. The announcement following a cabinet-level security meeting this afternoon was a setback to the Pentagon's efforts to bolster its forces in Iraq with contributions from allies. For the past several weeks, India has been seriously considering the deployment to Iraq of a full army division -- about 17,000 men -- which would have been the second-largest foreign contingent in the country after that of the United States. Some senior ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had argued that such a contribution would advance India's economic and strategic interests both in the gulf and in terms of its relations with the United States. But the proposal has generated intense opposition in India. Public opinion here was solidly against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and with national elections looming next year, ruling-party strategists feared the political consequences of sending troops to help occupy the country, particularly if they started dying in significant numbers. In the end, Indian officials said, they could not afford to take such risks without the cover of authorization from the U.N. Security Council."

I am curious to see what, if any, the fallout of this decision will be with regards to India-US relations.

More Bollywood

For those of you able to catch the Bollywood special on Turner Classic Movies last month, and enjoyed it, and those that missed the special series altogether, the Sundance Channel is going to have a bollywood Festival of its own, starting on the 18th of July at 9 PM. Hailed as "Bollywood Boulevard" three new films that push Indian Cinema, the Sundance Channel will show MF Husain's Gaja Gamini (as a side note, I was in Bombay at some of the shooting for this film), Agni Varsha, and also, Bollwyood Bound, a story of Indo-Canadians wanting to make it in Bollywood. I am really looking forward to this one.