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Why's a Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel on the "No-Fly" List? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Why's a Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel on the "No-Fly" List?

The federal officials who are busy assuring Americans that they've got their act together when it comes to managing port security are not inspiring much confidence with their approach to airline security.

When Dr. Robert Johnson, a heart surgeon who did his active duty with the U.S. Army Reserve before being honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, arrived at the Syracuse airport near his home in upstate New York last month for a flight to Florida, he was told he could not travel.

Why? Johnson was told that his name had been added to the federal "no-fly" list as a possible terror suspect.

Johnson, who served in the military during the time of the first Gulf War and then came home to serve as northern New York's first board-certified thoracic surgeon and an active member of the community in his hometown of Sackets Harbor, is not a terror suspect. But he is an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, who mounted a scrappy campaign for Congress as the Democratic challenger to Republican Representative John McHugh in 2004 and who plans to challenge McHugh again in upstate New York's sprawling 23rd District.

Johnson, who eventually made it onto the flight to Florida, is angry. And, like a growing number of war critics whose names have ended up on "no-fly" lists – some of them prominent, many of them merely concerned citizens – he wants some answers.

"Why would a former lieutenant colonel who swore an oath to defend and protect our country pose a threat of terrorism?" he asked, in an interview with the Plattsburgh Press-Republican newspaper.

So far, he's not getting satisfactory responses to his questions.

No one at the Syracuse airport would tell him why he was on the list.

Nor has the federal Transportation Security Administration, which compiles the "no-fly" files, been forthcoming – except to say that names are added to the watch lists on the "recommendations and information received from federal agencies, including intelligence and law-enforcement agencies."

The story's gotten a good deal of media attention in upstate New York, and Johnson is speculating with reporters about whether his name ended up on the list because he ran against McHugh as a veteran who boldly declared that: "I know the ravages of war and I know the sacrifices that have to be made when a war is in our national interest. This war is not in our national interest."

McHugh's office denies any wrongdoing by the Republican congressman, a senior member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee who brags about working closely with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

Johnson's not backing off his call for an explanation.

The physician-candidate told the Plattsburgh paper that the secrecy surrounding his name's addition to the "no-fly" list, and the prospect that it might be there because of his anti-war views, is outrageous.

"This is like McCarthyism in the 1950s," says Johnson.

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