Is Your Name On the 'Master Terrorist List?


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If you happened to take the US Airways shuttle from Logan to LaGuardia on March 23rd 2002, you might have been stuck for a good while behind Johnnie Thomas, a seventy-year-old African-American woman at the head of the check-in line. The ticket agent disappeared with Thomas's passport, and did not return for half an hour.

When she returned, the agent told Thomas she was cleared to fly, but that, from now on, each time she checked in US Airways would be required to call the state police, who would call the FBI, who would run a check on the date and place of her birth. "It's not your fault," she told Thomas. "It's just that your name is on the master terrorist list."

Eight days earlier, at LaGuardia, the same thing had happened, and Thomas had laughed it off. (The agent had told her, "You seem like a real nice lady, but please don't come to me the next time you're at LaGuardia.") The second time, though, Thomas was not amused. She had just spent a fine week on Martha's Vineyard with her grandchildren, and was in no mood to argue that she wasn't a terrorist. March 23rd was a Saturday. On Monday morning, at home in Wayne, New Jersey, Thomas got busy on the telephone, making notes on each call.

She called the FBI office in Paterson. "If you want your name off the list, hire a lawyer," said the man who returned her call. He refused to give his name.

She called the Washington offices of the United States senators from New Jersey and Montana (she spends time each year in Miles City, Montana, where her late husband grew up) but no one offered a quick solution.

She called Denise Hartse, a reporter at the Miles City Star, who put her in touch with the FBI's counterterrorism specialist in Billings, who suggested that she call the Federal Aviation Administration. The number the phone book gave for the FAA in Bergen County turned out not to be in service.

Next, she called the Transportation Security Administration. Pay dirt! A Mrs. Boyd at the TSA told Johnnie Thomas that she was on an FBI "no fly" list because John Thomas Christopher was one of the aliases used by Christian Michael Longo, who had been arrested on January 13th at a beach camp in the Yucatán and charged with murdering his wife and three children. He is now safely in jail in Oregon awaiting trial.  Longo was born in 1974 and has blue eyes and reddish-blond hair.  O.K., Thomas thought, it's a big, complicated country. Perhaps the TSA could remove her name from the list? No, said Mrs. Boyd. Only the FBI could do that.

Thomas called a friend who had been in the foreign service, who called a colleague, who called an FBI counter- terrorism expert, who said that some entities called the N.I.S.D.B. and the N.G.A.T. (even he did not know what the letters stood for) could maybe "scrub the database" to remove her name. "I have no idea what either of them is," Thomas said. "Mrs. Boyd said maybe I should call the A.C.L.U."

Instead, Thomas called FBI headquarters in Washington, where she was directed to the Fugitive Publicity Unit, which told her to talk to Supervisory Special Agent Rob Haley, in the Criminal Investigative Division. Haley checked with the Oregon FBI and discovered that one airline had indeed been alerted during the manhunt for Longo, but US Airways was not it, so he couldn't say how Thomas's name had ended up on the list. He said he couldn't speak for "the counterterrorism side of the house." He suggested that she call her local F.B.I. office. "That's where I started!" she said.

He told her that airline watch lists are generated from many different sources. He would check further, but he wasn't optimistic that he could get her name removed. "He said to be patient," Thomas said.

Mrs. Boyd, meanwhile, informed her that four other law-abiding John Thomases had called to complain.

By this time, Thomas had been making calls for two weeks. On April 13th, she checked in at US Airways at LaGuardia for another trip to the Vineyard. This time, to her surprise, her name had the word "error" next to it on the computer screen. The ticket agent consulted briefly with his supervisor and checked her through. "Obviously, somebody had talked to somebody," Thomas said.

When, four days later, she returned through Logan, her name on the screen carried a new label: "Not allowed to fly."

The agent consulted with his supervisor, and Thomas was directed to a back room, where her checked luggage was X-rayed. At the security gate, her carry-on bag was opened. At the ramp, her carry- on bag was opened again, and she stretched her arms wide for the top-to-toe wand. "Something different happens every time," she said last week. "It's scary.

Adapted from THE NEW YORKER