August 20, 2004
Senator? Terrorist? A Watch List Stops Kennedy at
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
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
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
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
"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
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
"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."