24 March 2019 — This Can’t Be Happening
US lets journalists fly but also know they’re being monitored
Sometimes you have to leave the United States to understand how far this country has evolved towards becoming a police state.
I got a good example of this just last week on a trip with my harpsichordist wife to Vienna where she had been contracted to perform a concert of music by a leftist Jewish composer who fled Austria just ahead of the Nazi Anschluss that took over and incorporated that country into Germany, eventually settling in the US.
At the Philadelphia International Airport, going through the TSA security checkpoint, I was pulled aside “at random” for a special going over. Then at our plane change at Heathrow Airport in the UK, at the point where we had to go through a passport and security check, I was told my boarding pass was no good and that I’d need to go to the airline check-in counter for a new one. It seemed a little odd — my wife’s boarding pass had checked out fine, and our itinerary showed both our names and our adjacent seat reservations for the next flight. But I marked the glitch up to bureaucracy or an inadequate printer.
A week later, when it came time to book our seats for the return flight home, the American Airlines website would only let us obtain my wife’s boarding passes and seat reservations for the two legs of the flight home. I was only able to access and print my boarding pass for the first leg from Vienna back to Heathrow. Each time we tried to get the second boarding pass a message kept saying we’d have to go the airline ticket counter, show my passport, and obtain a boarding pass there.
We did so at the Vienna airport, receiving all four of our passes from the ticket agent, this time reprinted on the usual cardstock at the check-in counter.
Everything went smoothly going through security at the Vienna airport and we flew off to London, but when I got to the boarding pass check at the automated security checkpoint there again at Heathrow, I got a message on the screen saying my newly acquired official boarding pass was “invalid” and to see an immigration officer. I walked over to the manned gate and after checking my boarding pass and passport he told me I needed to go to the airline’s transfer desk a room away. There an agent scanned my passport, and then printed me a new boarding pass. Before handing it to me, he stamped on it in red the words “ICE Security.” Asking what that meant, I was told, “You’d have to ask Homeland Security, sir.”
As we still had two hours of transfer time to kill, we went on to the waiting lounge for Terminal 5 where our flight was leaving from and had lunch, finally heading off to our departure gate when it’s number was posted on the schedule board.
As we approached our gate we heard our names blared out on a loudspeaker that was presumably blasting all over the terminal, saying we should to report to our gate for a security check. As we had just arrived there, I went over to the person at the gate entrance and said I was David LIndorff and with me was my wife. He said, “You need to come with me sir, with your bags and electronic equipment, for a special security check.” My wife said, “I want to go with him. Can I go with him?” He said that would be fine.
He proceeded to leave his post checking in other passengers on the flight and led us down a flight of stairs to where several British airport security staff were waiting by a table. There were several other people — two men and a woman — who were also being checked. The South Indian officer politely asked me to place my carry-on bag on the table, zipping it open for his inspection, and to remove my computer and cellphone from my computer bag. He perfunctorily rifled through all the clothes, papers, etc., in my small wheeled suitcase, then went over my computer and cell phone with a special device which, I presume, was looking for explosives, but which it occurred to me might have been hoovering up my data. Then he checked my hands, front and back, for explosives residue with another device.
I asked him why I kept having problems going through airort security, and why there was this special security check stamped on my boarding pass, and he said, “It was ordered by your country’s Homeland Security Office, sir.”
I said, “Yeah, I’m a journalist and our president doesn’t like journalists.”
He replied, “Yes sir, you’ve got a lot of problems over there, I know.”
I said, “I know my writing is unpopular with the government, but I don’t see what that has to do with checking me for explosives.” He didn’t respond to that but did say, “You should see how many black people your country has us run checks on,” adding, “Okay sir. We’re done. You can go ahead and board.”
I turned to the others who were being checked and asked, “Just out of curiosity, are any of you also journalists?” None replied, but one of them, a well dressed man who looked to be in his late 30s, whom I ran into again as we were actually stepping onto the plane, said, “I think I was stopped because I’m from Brazil.” Indeed, he did have light brown skin and dark hair making it easy to label him a Latinx, and we all know how popular those people are with the ICE squads at the border. It turned out that this fellow was seated in First Class.
So once again, I’m on the Homeland Security Department’s list of dangerous persons.
And remember, the initial flagging of my boarding pass, and the placing of a red pre-made stamp on the new boarding pass by the person at the airline transfer service desk of Heathrow Terminal 3 happened in Britain, not the US, and it was all handled by British security and airline personnel based on information provided to them by my own country’s Dept. of Homeland Security. That is to say I am on some internationally circulated watch list for my work as a journalist.
This has happened before to me, in the period after the Iraq War was launched by the Bush/Cheney administration. Living and working for five months in early 2004 as a Fulbright Professor at a university in Taiwan, and for a couple of years thereafter when I was traveling around the US by air promoting my book The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), whenever I would check in and get my boarding pass, the counter agent would look up my reservation and then write a prominent “S” in pen and circle it before handing it to me. I asked a couple of times what the letter meant, and finally one agent told me, “It means special security check,” and indeed, every time I flew in those years I would have to be patted down, scanned with a hand-held metal detector, and have my carry-on bag opened and pawed through by a TSA employee, or some equivalent person in the foreign country I was in.
Back in November 2002, I wrote a long article for Salon Magazine about the US government’s post-9/11 “No Fly” list. In the course of my research, I learned from a source in Homeland Security something that nobody else seemed to have discovered: that there were actually two government lists. One, the existence of which had been publicly announced, was of people deemed by the FBI and other intelligence agencies to be risks to air safety, i.e., potential terrorists who it was believed might try to bomb or hijack a plane, but for whom there was insufficient evidence for an arrest. People on that list were simply turned away if they tried to fly. My suspicion was that there had to be a second list though, because many people were being repeatedly harassed but then allowed to fly. These suspicions of mine were confirmed in a second article I did for Salon that ran the following year headlined “Grounding the Flying Nun.” There were, I learned, a few hundred people on the first list, some with common names like Muhammed Islam — just people with the misfortune of having a name identical to someone who was a suspected terrorist. Then there was another much longer list, containing thousands of names, which was of people who were known to oppose the US government and its policies — particularly its foreign policy and its wars. These people, like a 71-year-old pacifist nun and also my impeachment book co-author Barbara Olshansky, a lead attorney on the legal team challenging the Guantanamo prison camp, were not so much barred from flying as harassed whenever they tried to fly.
Sometimes, as in the “flying nun’s” case, the harassment could involve being taken away to a room and questioned for so long she’d miss her flight to join some protest action, for example at the School of the Americas where she was a regular. Other times it was just a case of public humiliation. Barbara told me that she was so regularly ordered to pull down her pants or dress to be checked for a bomb belt at TSA screenings on her frequent flights that she made a special purchase of attractive-looking underwear for her air travels.
So, after having flown for almost a decade without encountering any problems at TSA inspections, I’ve been alerted by this latest experience flying to Vienna for a week that I’m now back on that second list, and can expect a regime of harassment when I travel by air. My guess is that it was my impeachment book and perhaps an earlier book I wrote on the Bush/Cheney government’s attacks on civil liberties and its criminal wars on “Terror” and on Afghanistan and Iraq, that led to my first inclusion on the list. Now I suspect it is my founding of the collectively run newsite ThisCantBeHappening.net or my December article in the Nation magazine exposing the Pentagon’s fraudulent accounting, or perhaps another article run on a number of news sites exposing the US government’s decades-long effort, still underway, to develop the ability to launch a massive first-strike nuclear attack on Russia that could cripple any chance of Russia’s being able to counter with a significant retaliatory strike, that have put me back on it.
I’ll admit that it’s a pain in the ass to be hauled to the side at TSA checkpoints to be patted down and then forced to stand around while some glorified transit cop in a blue shirt paws grimly through my luggage. On the positive side, as least foreknowledge of being targeted forces one to get to the airport earlier and not be caught racing down some long terminal hallway trying to get to a gate before boarding closes, in order to allow for the extra inspection time. But my experience on this latest journey is also a reminder of how far we in the US have gone down the road towards a police state.
The proof that my being on a Homeland Security airport harassment list as opposed to a terrorist watch list, and that my inclusion on the former is all about my being a journalist and government critic, and has nothing to do with being suspected of potential terrorism, is that though the authorities knew my wife and I were booked together for our Austria trip, no effort was made to check her suitcase or to have her remove her shoes for inspection (though she says they did run a device over her hands while she was waiting for my inspection, to see if there were traces of explosives).
Come to think of it, the several times I flew between the US and Taiwan, sometimes with my wife and our then 11-year-old son Jed, and sometimes just with Jed, they never checked any carry-on luggage other than the one bag I identified as mine. And of course, for all they knew I wasn’t really telling the truth that the suitcase I was toting was mine.
The reason they are harassing me and other journalists is obvious. As with the journalists and lawyers we’ve learned that the government is tracking, questioning and even detaining as they try to cover and to defend immigrants at the southern border, they are not afraid at all of what I might do on a plane. It’s what we do for a living that scares them.