In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress, an organization closely affiliated with the Communist Party (CPUSA), drew up a petition to deliver to the United Nations (UN). Entitled “We Charge Genocide,” the 237-page document laid out, with extensive corroboration, the lynchings, wrongful executions, and voter suppression African Americans endured.
There was just one problem: the petition’s two most prominent signatories, Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois, had both had their passports revoked by the US State Department for their outspoken radicalism and couldn’t make the trip to France. When African-American Communist William L. Patterson finally hand-delivered the document, the US government announced its intention to seize his travel documents as well. Patterson fled France, but was detained in the UK, on order of the US government. Upon his arrival in the US, Patterson had his passport physically taken.
A decade later, the State Department’s penchant for restricting the travel of dissidents would take a particularly Kafkaesque turn. After becoming the first American journalist to report from post-revolution China, William Worthy of the Baltimore Afro-American had his password revoked.
But unlike Robeson and DuBois — who missed out on a number of political conferences and other professional opportunities because of government restrictions — Worthy refused to comply. In 1961, he traveled, sans passport, to Cuba to report on the revolution and interview Fidel Castro. Unable to invalidate his passport again, the State Department tried something else — they charged Worthy, an American citizen, with illegally entering the country.
The US government’s midcentury travel crackdowns have important parallels with today’s “no-fly list.” While the two policies have different purposes — passport revocation was meant to prevent people from reaching their destinations, while the no-fly list is supposed to protect other passengers — both expand the state’s capacity to put the squeeze on radicals and other disfavored individuals and groups.
And based on some of the no-fly lists’ targets, it appears that’s exactly what has happened.
“Terror By Index Cards”
The state practice of compiling the names of purportedly dangerous individuals dates back to the post–World War I years, when J. Edgar Hoover helmed the Department of Justice’s “General Intelligence” or “Radical” Division. A former librarian, Hoover organized a vast card catalog of radical organizations and their members, enabling the US government to round up and arrest thousands of leftists during the Palmer Raids.
Hoover never lost his penchant for indexing. As head of the FBI in the 1930s, he put together the Custodial Detention List — a collection of people who, because of their political views, would either be detained or surveilled in the event of a war or national emergency. “Terror by index cards,” leftist congressman Vito Marcantonio derisively labeled it.
When Attorney General Francis Biddle discovered Hoover’s system, he demanded it be dismantled. Hoover simply changed its name to the “Security Index.” New title or not, by 1973 Congress wanted the list shredded. But the FBI responded by once again rebranding it, this time switching its name to the “Administrative Index.” Not until 1978 — over thirty-five years after Biddle first called for its destruction — did the FBI get rid of the index.
Ostensibly intended to track those with “Communistic, Fascist, Nazi, or other nationalistic backgrounds,” the list primarily targeted the Left. FBI agents worked overtime to determine the identities of CPUSA and Socialist Workers Party members in particular.
Eventually, the FBI’s various indexes would include not just Communist and Socialist Workers Party members, but Martin Luther King Jr, historian Howard Zinn, and American Civil Liberties Union founder Roger Baldwin. Both Robeson and DuBois also showed up on the register.
At times, the FBI’s zeal to catch the radical in the haystack drove them to the point of absurdity. When a high school student doing a paper for class attempted to write the Socialist Labor Party — but mailed her letter to the Socialist Workers Party instead — the FBI opened an investigation into whether the fifteen-year-old was a “subversive.”
The No-Fly List
Several decades later, in the wake of 9/11, a number of attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Green Party members, and peace activists began experiencing varying degrees of harassment at airports. Some were asked to take their pants off in front of other passengers, some endured extensive interrogation before being allowed to fly, and others were barred from boarding altogether.
They received a range of explanations for such treatment, from a computer randomly spitting out activists’ names to their appearance on a mysterious list. As the reports piled up, however, it became abundantly clear that left-wing activists were being systematically subjected to greater examination because of some kind of government list.
In 2002, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) finally gave up the game: they admitted they’d created a no-fly list.
But the revelation raised more questions than it answered. Who was on the list? And why? And given that many activists said they’d been singled out for searches or interrogations before being permitted to board, was there an additional set of individuals who could fly, but would come in for extra scrutiny?
The following year, those questions still unanswered, George W. Bush ordered the FBI to create the Terrorist Screening Center. The new organization was tasked with maintaining a comprehensive “terrorist watch list” consisting of five indexes, including: the no-fly list; the selectee list (a list of individuals forced to undergo pre-boarding questioning); the list of individuals whose visas or passports are to be denied; and the comically and improperly named “Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorist” list.
More than a decade later, both the no-fly list and the terrorist watch list as a whole have grown dramatically. Before 9/11, only sixteen individuals were prohibited from flying because of a perceived “threat to aviation.” Today, that number is about 47,000. And the comprehensive watch list is believed to contain over one million names.
Ending Up on The List
In 2014, The Intercept obtained the manual that lays out the criteria for “watch listing” someone. Already a low bar, the standard has been dropped even further under the Obama administration. “Concrete facts” are no longer required. Instead, reasonable suspicion — an extremely low legal standard — is enough to subject an individual to questioning, searches, and travel restrictions. “Uncorroborated” social media posts can also land a person on the list.
And then there are those who are flagged by mistake — for instance, for having the same name as someone the government deems suspect, or simply because of a human error. Ted Kennedy and John Lewis have both made appearances on government watch lists, as has a seven-month-old.
Yet while victims of such blunders struggle to figure out how they got on the index — not to mention how they can get off it — many others are intentionally watch listed because of their political beliefs or actions, or as a form of retaliation.
For example, the FBI punished four Muslim-American men who refused to work as informants — including rejecting the agency’s suggestion that they visit online forums and act “extremist” — by putting them on the no-fly list. The restrictions weren’t just a minor inconvenience. The men reported being prevented from visiting a gravely ill relative and being separated from family members — including spouses and children — for up to five years. Unhappy with its would-be informants, the FBI used the travel proscription as a bargaining chip once again: become informants, the agency said, and we’ll remove you from the list.
The four men, with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and CUNY Law School’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Project (CLEAR), challenged their inclusion on the list. Last summer, just four days before an important hearing, all four men received letters from the government notifying them they were no longer on the no-fly list, and a court dismissed their claims for damages. (Last week, CCR and CLEAR announced they were appealing the dismissal.)
The no-fly list has also been used to retaliate against those who challenge it. In 2002, Rebecca Gordon and Jan Adams, two antiwar activists, discovered they were on the “selectee list” — the index of individuals allowed to fly, but subjected to additional scrutiny — after they were stopped at the airport and interviewed by police. When they finally got the go-ahead to board, agents put a big letter “s” on their boarding pass to indicate their pariah status.
Unsure why they were on the list, Gordon and Adams reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union for help. Following lengthy litigation, the FBI turned over three hundred pages of completely redacted documents — leaving Gordon and Adams no closer to discovering why they’d been flagged. In the meantime, their lawyer, Tom Burke, had been put on the selectee list.
State law enforcement also has access to federal watch lists. In 2008, Maryland law enforcement infiltrated anti-death penalty and antiwar groups and added members’ names to a regional database of terrorists and drug traffickers.
Like the no-fly list, this broader register traps its subjects in a web of surveillance. Both federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as local law enforcement, have access to it. Every time law enforcement runs an individuals name, it will come up. It is easy to imagine a police officer’s thoughts when they pull someone over for a busted taillight and discovers they are a “Known or Appropriately Suspect Terrorist.”
To be sure, the lack of transparency makes it difficult to discern just who is on what list and why. But it is not difficult to establish that activists are frequent targets of the state.
In just the last several years, the FBI has been shown to have launched counterterrorism investigations into Occupy Wall Street, the School of the Americas Watch, and the movement against the Keystone Pipeline. The Department of Homeland Security has kept tabs on the Black Lives Matter movement. A 2010 Department of Justice report found that the FBI added the names of Greenpeace, USA activists to the terror watch list. And recently, ahead of an Occupy Baton Rouge protest, the US Marshall Service circulated the Louisiana State Police’s “List of Known Anarchists and Protesters.”
Instruments of Repression
The terrorist watch list may trace its origins to the “war on terror,” but the history of the US state using indexes to track “dangerous individuals” is much longer. For decades, through an array of programs, the state has employed such lists to expand its power and dragoon political dissidents.
The no-fly list, while distinct in some notable ways, would be quite familiar to J. Edgar Hoover. The power to police speech and actions, the capacity to harass activists and bully citizens — these are hallmarks of the draconian intelligence programs he favored.
Any discussion that fails to mention how no-fly lists and other watch lists are used as instruments of political repression — whether in favor of histrionics about terrorism or lamentations about those mistakenly ensnared — benefits the forces of “law and order.”
The author works at the Bill of Rights Defense Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation, but the views expressed here are his own.