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Terrorist Lists

Could your name be on a "Master Terrorist List?" Well, we certainly hope not, because here is example of what you might have to go through if your name should accidently come up on one:

On March 23rd 2002, Mrs. Johnnie Thomas, a seventy-year-old African-American woman, stood at the head of the line at the US Airways check in counter at Logan airport in Boston. Mrs. Thomas was boarding a shuttle flight from Logan to La Guardia. Earlier, the ticket agent disappeared with Thomas's passport, and returned a half hour later.

Upon her return, ticket agent informed Mrs. Thomas that she was cleared to fly, but that, from then on, each time she checked into US Airways she 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," the ticket agent said. "It's just that your name is on the master terrorist list."

Eight days earlier, at LaGuardia airport, the same situation happened and Mrs. Thomas had laughed it off. The ticket agent told her, "You seem like a real nice lady, but please don't come to me the next time you're at LaGuardia." This second time, though, Mrs. Thomas was not amused. She had spent a week with her grandchildren on Martha's Vineyard, and wasn't in the mood to argue that she wasn't a terrorist.

The incident at Logan Airport took place on a Saturday. That Monday morning, at her home in Wayne, New Jersey, Mrs. Thomas got busy on the telephone, and made notes on each call.

The first call Mrs. Thomas made was to the FBI office in Paterson. "If you want your name off the list, hire a lawyer," said the man who returned her call. (He declined to give his name.)

Mrs Johnson then called the Washington offices of the U.S. senators from New Jersey and Montana (Mrs. Thomas spends time each year in Miles City, Montana, where her late husband grew up). No one offered a quick solution.

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

Mrs. Thomas called the Transportation Security Administration, and finally hit pay dirt! The TSA official she spoke to, a Mrs. Boyd, informed Mrs. 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 January 13th at a beach camp in Mexico and charged with murdering his wife and three children. Longo was then safely in an Oregon jail awaiting trial. Very well and good, Mrs. Thomas thought, it's a big country. Could the TSA could remove her name from the list? No, said Mrs. Boyd. Only the FBI could do that.

Mrs. Thomas then called a friend who had been in the foreign service, who then called a colleague, who called an FBI counter- terrorism expert. The FBI agent said that some entities called the NISDB. and the NGAT (and he didn't know what the acronyms stood for) could possibly "scrub the database" to remove her name. "Mrs. Boyd said maybe I should call the ACLU."

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

The agent further explained to her that airline watch lists were generated from a number of different sources, and that would he check further. But he said he wasn't optimistic that he could get her name removed from the list. "He said to be patient," Thomas said.

In the meantime, Mrs. Boyd, informed Mrs. Thomas that four other law-abiding citizens with the name "John Thomas" had also called to complain.

By this time, Mrs. 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. To her surprise, this time her name had the word "error" next to it on the computer screen. The ticket agent briefly consulted with his supervisor and checked her through. "Obviously, somebody had talked to somebody," she said.

Four days later, however, when she returned through Logan, her name now carried a new label on the screen: "Not allowed to fly."

The agent spoke with his supervisor, and Mrs. Thomas was directed to a back room, where her checked luggage was X-rayed. When she finally arrived t the security gate, she was told to open her carry-on bag. Upon arriving at the ramp, Mrs. Thomas was told to open her bag again, and she was told to stretch her arms wide for the top-to-toe wand.

"Something different happens every time," she said, "It's scary."