Senator? Terrorist? A Watch List Stops Ted Kennedy at Airport

By RACHEL L. SWARNS

The New York Times

August 20, 2004

WASHINGTON, Aug. 19 - The meeting had all the hallmarks of an ordinary Congressional hearing. There was Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, discussing the problems faced by ordinary citizens mistakenly placed on terrorist watch lists. Then, to the astonishment of the crowd attending a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Mr. Kennedy offered himself up as Exhibit A.

Between March 1 and April 6, airline agents tried to block Mr. Kennedy from boarding airplanes on five occasions because his name resembled an alias used by a suspected terrorist who had been barred from flying on airlines in the United States, his aides and government officials said.

Instead of acknowledging the craggy-faced, silver-haired septuagenarian as the Congressional leader whose face has flashed across the nation's television sets for decades, the airline agents acted as if they had stumbled across a fanatic who might blow up an American airplane. Mr. Kennedy said they refused to give him his ticket.

"He said, 'We can't give it to you'," Mr. Kennedy said, describing an encounter with an airline agent to the rapt audience. " 'You can't buy a ticket to go on the airline to Boston.' I said, 'Well, why not?' He said, 'We can't tell you.' "

"Tried to get on a plane back to Washington," Mr. Kennedy continued. '' 'You can't get on the plane.' I went up to the desk and said, 'I've been getting on this plane, you know, for 42 years. Why can't I get on the plane?' "

The hearing room erupted in laughter.

Mr. Kennedy said his situation highlighted the odyssey encountered by people whose names had mistakenly appeared on terrorist watch lists or resembled the names of suspected terrorists on such lists. In April, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the government on behalf of seven airline passengers who said they had wrongly been placed on no-fly lists or associated with names on the lists and could not find a way to clarify their identities.

In Mr. Kennedy's case, airline supervisors ultimately overruled the ticket agents in each instance and allowed him to board the plane. But it took several weeks for the Department of Homeland Security to clear the matter up altogether, the senator's aides said.

Just days after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called Mr. Kennedy in early April to apologize and to promise that the problems would be resolved, another airline agent tried to stop Mr. Kennedy from boarding a plane yet again. The alias used by the suspected terrorist on the watch list was Edward Kennedy, said David Smith, a spokesman for the senator.

At the hearing, Mr. Kennedy wondered how ordinary citizens could navigate the tangled bureaucracy if a senator had so much trouble. "How are they going to be able to get to be treated fairly and not have their rights abused?" he asked.

Asa Hutchinson of the Department of Homeland Security, who was testifying at the Senate hearing, said his department was working to address the situation. He said travelers with such problems should contact the ombudsman at the Transportation Security Administration, a division of Homeland Security, who would help them take steps to clarify their identities.

"There is a process to clear names," said Mr. Hutchinson, the department's under secretary for border security. "But it does illustrate the importance of improving the whole system, which we are very aggressively working to do."

On Monday, Mr. Hutchinson told Congress that Homeland Security officials planned to take over the checking of names of passengers against the no-fly lists. The responsibility is now carried out by the airlines, to ensure that terror suspects do not board airplanes and that law enforcement officials are promptly notified of potential security risks.

Advocates for tougher screening requirements say the current system is ineffective because the government does not provide the airlines with a comprehensive set of watch lists, in part because some of that information is classified. Civil libertarians also cite instances in which airlines have mistakenly denied passengers the right to fly.

The ticket agents who tried to block Mr. Kennedy from boarding planes to Washington, Boston, Palm Beach and New York worked for US Airways, Senate officials said. Amy Kudwa, a US Airways spokeswoman, acknowledged that Mr. Kennedy was a frequent passenger, but declined to comment on the incidents.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union said they did not know how many people had been mistakenly placed on watch lists. But they said the sluggish responses from the airline and the government to Mr. Kennedy's efforts to clear his name demonstrated the absurdity of the no-fly system.

"It demonstrates all those things that we found problems with in the first place, " said Reginald Shulford of the A.C.L.U."If you're Ted Kennedy, you can call a friend," Mr. Shulford said. "If you're an average citizen you cannot. You can complain to the Department of Homeland Security, but to no avail."

At the hearing, Mr. Kennedy emphasized his concern for passengers stuck on no-fly lists. But he tried to make light of his own troubles.

He said, to much laughter, that he did not believe the mistake was a conspiracy engineered by his Republican colleagues. And as Mr. Hutchinson offered up his apologies, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, responded jokingly in kind.

Mr. Hutchinson said, "Senator, we do regret that inconvenience to you."

Mr. Hatch said, "Quit smiling when you say that."