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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2004

Mathematician Caught in 'War on Terror' Dragnet

A mathematics professor at the University of Alberta had a rude awakening recently while traveling to a conference in Chicago. James Lewis arrived at the Edmonton airport Sept. 15 with an electronic ticket and tried to get his boarding pass from a machine using his Aeroplan card, but his attempts were unsuccessful. When he approached an Air Canada agent, he was told he was refused carriage because of a "security issue" involving his interline travel to the United States. His passport was then taken to a supervisor, who got him on his flight to Toronto.

In Toronto, he met with the same obstacles. He needed approval from an airline supervisor to get a boarding pass on the United Airlines flight to Chicago. Then he was delayed in customs clearance when he was interrogated by a U.S. Customs and Immigration officer who asked him, among other questions, whether he had ever been arrested, and if he had ever been asked those kinds of questions before. When Lewis said "no," the officer went to speak with a senior supervisor. The U.S. customs official eventually allowed Lewis to pass through, but not long after, the flight to Chicago was cancelled due to weather conditions and Lewis was forced to stay in Toronto overnight.

The next morning, he went through U.S. Customs and Immigration again, and enquired what the problem was. He was told, "We can't tell you."

In Chicago, he tried to find out more about the situation. He called the Canadian Passport office, and was told his passport was "clean" with Canada. He called up the Canadian Consulate in Chicago. They told him it was "a U.S. problem," and couldn't help him.

Lewis, who had a vague memory of a news item about U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy being stopped at U.S. airports, went on an Internet search. Using Google, he learned that Kennedy had been refused carriage under a "no-fly" list maintained by the American Transportation Administration, using names given to it by the FBI and intelligence agencies. He also discovered that two other men with the name "John Lewis" had been pulled aside at airports in the U.S. because they had a name similar to someone on the list.

Not much is known about the list, as the U.S. government has refused requests under freedom of information to disclose the list's specific purpose, or the criteria under which names appear on the list.

The "no-fly" list is a product of the post 9/11 security agenda in the U.S., but it's not clear its purpose is limited to anti-terrorism, or if it also serves an ordinary law enforcement agenda.

It has been used politically by government agencies. Peace and environmental activists with no links to terrorism have been stopped from flying in the U.S., and in Canada, an editorial cartoonist critical of U.S. and Israeli policies has been among those who have been stopped.

The U.S. Transportation Security Commission keeps no records of the number of passengers denied boarding or delayed by the list, or of the number of people mistakenly on the list or mistakenly taken aside. But, like other watch lists created after 9/11, anecdotal evidence suggests the "no-fly" list is riddled with wrongly flagged travellers and misspelled names, and often lacks sufficient information to verify the identity of an individual listed.

As Lewis told the Bulletin, "If I can be stopped, anyone can. And, if someone with a white Anglo-Saxon name like me is having problems, how much worse is it for people with Muslim names?"

Tenaciously, while still at the conference in Chicago, Lewis found the number of the TSA ombudsman and called the office. He was told he would be sent forms, which would allow him to apply to get his name off the list.

Lewis said he's not confident of his success when it took Kennedy, a member of Congress and one of the best-known American politicians, several weeks to get off the list after a series of phone calls to Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge.

"I'm not optimistic," Lewis said. "Although the people I dealt with while trying to get into the States were cooperative, there is still the likely possibility of encountering someone more zealous. Someone who thinks being on the list means I'm a criminal or terrorist.

"It's a very scary prospect. What does this mean for my future travel, even outside the U.S.? This could turn into a horror story for me. Imagine travelling home from Mexico via the U.S. and having to go through a Spanish interpreter, or getting pulled aside in another place whose judicial system requires that the burden of proof of one's innocence rests with the accused?"