Alia Kate, 16, a high school student in Milwaukee, wanted to go to
Washington, D.C., for the protests Saturday, April 20. She was looking forward
to demonstrating against the School of the Americas and learning how to lobby
against U.S. aid for Colombia.
She had an airplane ticket for a 6:55 p.m. flight out of Milwaukee on Friday
the 19th, and she got to the airport two hours ahead of time.
But she didn't make it onto the Midwest Express flight.
Neither did many other Wisconsin activists who were supposed to be on board.
Twenty of the 37 members of the Peace Action Milwaukee group--including a
priest and a nun--were pulled aside and questioned by Milwaukee County
sheriff's deputies. They were not cleared in time for takeoff and had to leave
the next morning, missing many of the events.
What tripped them up was a computerized "No Fly Watch List" that the
federal government now supplies to all the airlines. The airlines are required
to check their passenger lists against that computerized "No Fly"
"The name or names of people in that group came up in a watch list that
is provided through the federal government and is provided for everyone who
flies," says Sergeant Chuck Coughlin of the Milwaukee sheriff's
department. "The computer checks for exact matches, similar spellings,
and aliases. In this particular case, there were similar spellings. About five
or six individuals came up on the watch list. Although it was time-consuming,
and although they were flight-delayed, the system actually worked."
Don't tell Dianne Henke that.
A volunteer with Peace Action, Henke is the person who organized the whole
trip. "We were very upset," she says. "Here we were, going out
to lobby, to use our democratic rights, to talk to our legislators, to use our
freedom of speech and dissent, and then we're being detained and not told why.
We were taking young people and telling them if you use means that are
nonviolent and peaceful, your message will be heard. But the fact that we were
hampered, that we were detained, was just a totally different message."
Henke doesn't blame the sheriff's deputies. "They were very sympathetic
to us, but they just weren't getting the answers they wanted from the other
end of the telephone," she says.
It was never made clear to her exactly why they were being detained.
"We were getting all these different stories from the deputies. One
possibility was that a UWM [University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee] student had a
name, Jacob Laden, that was similar to a terrorist's name [Osama bin Laden].
Then another story was that someone had a foreign name that was changed to
make it sound more American, Alia Kate, who used to be Alia Torabian. Her
father was Persian or Iranian. I've known her all my life," says Henke,
who looks up Kate's number in an old Montessori phone book.
"I was one of the first people in our group to try to check in,"
says Kate. "When I went up to get my boarding pass, the lady said there
were some problems. She said her computer locked up and she had to wait for
someone else. And I found out that the someone else was one of the sheriff's
deputies on duty. And the sheriff's deputy came and told me I had to grab my
bags and follow her for further questioning.
"I was a little scared. I was a little confused. I didn't know what it
was about. I was alone and was taken to a building nearby. They sat me down in
a chair, and I just waited for 15 or 20 minutes. They had my driver's license.
They asked me what my phone number was and address was. I heard them making
phone calls, reading off some stuff on my license. Then they asked me what my
"I said I'm half Persian and Italian and German.
"They asked who was Persian, my mother or my father.
"I said, my father, my biological father. I don't even know him.
"They also asked me if I was a U.S. citizen.
"I told them I was.
"They asked me if I was from around here.
"I said yes."
Though one of the sheriff's deputies said "it was just a routine
procedure," they gave Alia several different explanations for what was
happening, she says. "They said it might have to do with increased
security in the Washington, D.C., area, or it might have to do with Indonesian
She says there may have been an element of racial profiling involved, too.
"I guess we're looking for Hispanic names," one of the deputies
said, according to Kate. She suspects they thought her first name was
Hispanic, and she says that two others detained early on, Manuel Sanchez and
Isabella Horning, may have been selected for their names.
Finally, they walked Kate back to the ticket counter, but the computer froze
up again, so Kate and Sanchez and Horning were told to go sit down and wait
for the deputies to deliver their boarding passes.
"They gave us our boarding passes, which had a bold-faced S with little
asterisks on both sides, circled with an ink marker," Kate says.
"This meant that when we went to the gate our carry-on bags would have to
be hand-searched and they'd have to wand us."
But the deputies took so much time going through the whole group that not
everyone was ready to go by 6:55.
Midwest Express held the flight for as long as it could but then left, almost
empty, without most of the activists.
"I was shocked," Kate says. "I couldn't believe what was
happening, that they could detain us long enough for us to miss our flight in
an apparent attempt to keep us in Milwaukee. It was sort of McCarthy-style the
way they have the names appearing on a list and targeting certain people,
dissenters especially. I felt my rights had been violated."
Sister Virgine Lawinger also was detained. "When I went through the line,
the lady at the ticket counter said, 'I'm sorry, you have to wait a minute,'
and then the sheriff's deputy came and took me and some others to an
office," she says. "All they asked us at that point was our
birthplace and said these were just routine checks. They said our names were
flagged. That's the real strange thing: What caused the computer to flag those
names? I did feel it was profiling a particular group without a basis--a peace
group. The abuse of power was so obvious."
Sister Virgine says she's upset about "losing an entire day of intense
education on the issue of Colombia." And she says her "right to
dissent" was infringed upon.
Father Bill Brennan of St. Patrick's Church in Milwaukee also missed his
flight because of the questioning. "No one was charged with a crime or
threat of a crime," he says. "No one was advised of his or her civil
rights. My personal reaction is fear of the arbitrary use of power this
incident reveals. Someone in Washington has the power to inspect a passenger
list drawn up in Wisconsin, discover the motive of our flight (namely, a peace
protest against what goes on at Fort Benning, Georgia, particularly as it
affects Colombia), decide who might possibly be subversives, and stop our
Sarah Backus, a coordinator for SOA [School of the Americas] Watch Wisconsin,
says she was told by one of the sheriff's deputies: "You're probably
being stopped because you are a peace group and you're protesting against your
Backus later asked the sheriff, David Clarke, about this, and he denied this
was the reason for the detentions, she says.
Backus also went to the Midwest Express ticket desk to find out what was going
on. "The names are in the computer, and the names came up," she says
she was told.
Lisa Bailey, a spokesperson for Midwest Express, says, "As the group
checked in, one of the passengers showed up on this list. At that point, the
airline got the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] rep and Milwaukee
County sheriffs. The TSA made the decision that since this was a group, we
should rescreen all of them." Midwest Express either found hotels for
those who missed their flights or provided transportation home.
Bailey says that screening the names against the list is standard operating
procedure. "Everyone who travels is now cleared through this list."
Where did this list come from?
One U.S. Marshal said the FBI compiles the list, and an FBI agent said it
"comes out of headquarters." But a spokesperson for the FBI in
Washington, Steve Berry, would not comment at all on the issue of the "No
Fly" list, and referred all questions to the TSA, a new wing of the
Department of Transportation.
The TSA was established by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which
President Bush signed into law on November 19. This law puts the Under
Secretary of Transportation for Security in charge of airline security. Today,
the Under Secretary of Transportation for Security is John W. Magaw, a former
Secret Service agent.
The law empowers Magaw to "establish policies and procedures requiring
air carriers to use information from government agencies to identify
individuals on passenger lists who may be a threat to civil aviation and, if
such an individual is identified, to notify appropriate law enforcement
agencies and prohibit the individual from boarding an aircraft."
The TSA has taken that power and run with it.
"The list is a compilation from intelligence agencies and is shared with
the airlines," says Paul Turk, a spokesperson for the TSA. "But as
to how you get on it, or how it's maintained, or who maintains it, I can't
help you with that."
Turk adds that he doesn't know how large the list is, "and if I did, I
couldn't tell you."