I’m a Journalist. Why Did I End Up on an FBI Terrorist Watch List?

I’m a Journalist. Why Did I End Up on an FBI Terrorist Watch List?

Are Terrorism Watch Lists Expanding Under Trump?

The use of “watch lists” to harass dissidents and journalists—as well as Muslims—appears to be growing, as the author discovered when he recently got caught in the net.


My wife, Joyce, and I recently traveled to Vienna for a week, where she had been invited to perform on Austrian state radio. Passing through Heathrow on our way home, we were separated by an automated security gate. The gate, which required you to scan your boarding pass, allowed Joyce through, but when I ran my pass, it flashed “Invalid.”

A security attendant pointed me to a transit desk where I could get a new boarding pass printed. An agent there ran a new card and then pressed a rubber stamp on it before handing it to me. Spotting, in fresh red ink, the words “ICE Security,” I asked, “Why’s a stamp from the US Immigration and Customs service being put on my boarding pass here in the UK? I’m not an immigrant.”

The ticketing agent replied, “That’s being done at the request of your Homeland Security Department, sir. You are on their list.”

Interesting, I thought, given that I was born in Washington, DC, to two native-born US citizens. I walked back to the security checkpoint, put my new boarding pass on the scanner, and the gate opened. I rejoined my wife and we continued on to the main lobby of Terminal 2, where we ordered lunch. Suddenly, I heard my name on the terminal’s main PA system: “Mr. Lindorff, report immediately to your gate for a special security check!”

Arriving at the gate, I announced myself, and the gate attendant immediately said into his walkie-talkie, “The Lindorffs are here.” He told me to go past him and down a flight of stairs for my enhanced security check. “Can I go with him?” my wife asked, not wanting me to be hauled off somewhere without her knowledge.

“Certainly, ma’am,” he said. “You can go with your husband.” So we went down the stairs to find two steel tables with security officers standing behind them. A dark-skinned man passed us going up the stairs.

“Please place your open luggage and briefcase on the table along with your computer and cell phone,” said a security officer.

He proceeded to run an electronic device over my computer and cell phone, and another smaller one over my hands, explaining that this was to detect any trace of explosives. He rifled perfunctorily through my dirty laundry and then said we were free to board.

My wife cheekily asked why her carry-on luggage and computer bag—both identical to mine—had not been checked for explosives, and the inspector said, “The Department of Homeland Security just asked us to search your husband and his luggage, not yours.”

“In other words, you don’t really think we’re terrorists,” I said, adding, “I am a US journalist with no criminal record. Why am I being treated like a suspected terrorist?”

“We don’t think you are a terrorist,” he replied. “It’s your Department of Homeland Security that’s telling us do this.”

I said, “I get it. I’m a journalist and my government doesn’t like journalists.”

“We know you have a lot of problems right now in the US,” he said, as we headed upstairs to board our plane.

Sixteen years after it was created in the post 9-11 hysteria of the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Terrorist Watch List is alive and, apparently, going off the rails, with increasing numbers being kept from boarding, while others are simply harassed, seemingly for political activism of one kind or another.

As I reported back in 2003 at Salon, there are actually at least two watch lists: a “No Fly” list of suspected terrorists, many of whom the Justice Department doesn’t have sufficient evidence to arrest but who are nonetheless barred from boarding a plane, and a second list of people who “don’t qualify” for that list because they have never shown any terrorist proclivities, but who are “selected” to be harassed and searched at the gate before flying, often—as I discovered and reported 16 years ago—for clearly political, not security, reasons.

In 2014, at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Transportation Security, the FBI disclosed that it was “managing” several watch lists, including the “No Fly” list of some 64,000 names, and a so-called “Selectee” list of 24,000 names. Around that time, The Intercept obtained a classified internal “guidance” document from the National Counterterrorism Center, which defined an eligible person for the Selectee list negatively as someone “who does not meet the criteria for inclusion on the No Fly list and who “is a member of a foreign or domestic terrorist organization…and is associated with terrorist activity…unless information exists that demonstrates that the application of secondary screening to such a person is not necessary, in which case such persons may be excluded from the Selectee list.”

According to Ramzi Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law and founding director of CLEAR, a legal clinic that assists those caught up in the government’s Terrorist Watch List net, “The number of people on the No Fly and Selectee lists controlled to a large degree by the FBI appears to have grown significantly since 2014 [the last time there was a hearing about the lists in Congress]. This is because of the way these lists are compiled, with people being ‘nominated’ for even remote connection to people deemed of interest, and often with no real way to know who or what organization ‘nominated’ you and no reliable way to get off except through legal action.”

Kassem said that the people “who are primarily on these lists in our experience appear to be Muslims or people from Muslim majority countries.… But increasingly we are seeing people who are not Muslim identified—organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement, other activists, journalists, lawyers. Typically they get checked before boarding like you did, but things can get a lot worse, like being forced to miss a flight, or being kept from flying altogether.”

As my case suggests, even this standard, vague as it is, is not being followed by federal agents compiling the Selectee List. My entire criminal record consists of sitting on the Mall of the Pentagon during the Mobe March in October 1967 and getting beaten, arrested, jailed, and charged with misdemeanor trespass, which got me a five-day suspended jail sentence and a $25 fine. I do, however, confess to “committing” investigative journalism that is critical of the government, most recently uncovering a history of massive accounting fraud by the Pentagon.

I was again pulled aside for gate search on July 1, as I was returning with my 26-year-old son Jed from working on a film project in the UK. We had just spent three days in Cambridge filming interviews with Joan Hall, the widow of Ted Hall. (The youngest scientist on the Manhattan Project, Ted had decided, on his own, to provide the Soviets with drawings of the Trinity plutonium bomb he was working on at Los Alamos in order to prevent the United States from emerging from World War II with a monopoly on atomic weapons.)

Again unable to obtain my boarding pass online, I asked a ticketing agent at Heathrow to print it for me. Noticing a bold SSSS printed on both parts of the pass, I asked for an explanation. “You are on a Department of Homeland Security list sir. It means you will have to go through a special security search at the gate,” I was told.

This time I was instructed to go through an unmarked door in the wall behind the gate counter. As the other passengers looked on curiously or suspiciously, I was led—along with my son, who had been instructed by his mother to stick with me if I were taken anywhere—into a room again containing two steel tables with security officers behind them. We were both instructed to put our opened suitcases and computer bags on the tables.

“Wait a minute,” I objected. “I have a four-SSSS stamp on my boarding pass, but my son has no such code on his, so he does not need to be checked.”

“Okay, your son can wait over there,” the security man replied, gesturing to several chairs along a wall. Jed took a seat to watch his father get searched.

The officer wiped my computer and my cell phone, as well as all the zippers on my bags, and my hands, with a cloth designed to collect any explosive traces. Finding none, he said we could go.

Feeling more annoyed than the last time, I said, “OK, so you know I don’t have a bomb on me, but you haven’t checked my son’s bag, which is just like mine. How do you know my bomb isn’t in that suitcase?”

The officer laughed and said, “We know you’re not a terrorist. We are conducting this search at the request of your Homeland Security Department, and they only told us to check you and your carry-on things, not your son. Go and board your plane.”

Arriving home, I contacted Brian McNeal at the public affairs office of the DHS. I asked him why I was being subjected to bomb searches when I flew, and he told me, “It looks like you’re on a watch list. But it’s not our list. The FBI manages multiple watch lists. You need to talk to them.”

I tried. Reporters can no longer just call up the FBI Press Office and talk to a press officer. Questions now must be submitted by e-mail, with a promise of a response often honored in the breach. In this case what I got was a written anonymous recommendation that I visit the FBI’s web page explaining the Terrorism Watch List. When I wrote back, I was sent the following anonymous e-mail:

Nominating a subject to the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) cannot be based on race, ethnicity, or religious affiliation; nor on beliefs and activities protected by the First Amendment, such as freedoms of speech, the press, or peaceful assembly. To add a subject to a subset list that prevents an individual from flying or requires secondary screening, a nomination must be received from a U.S. government law enforcement or intelligence agency to meet the reasonable suspicion standard. Mere guesses or hunches, or the reporting of suspicious activity alone are not sufficient.

In other words, while the Bureau will not confirm or deny that I’m on a list, there is supposed to be a “reasonable suspicion”—supposedly having nothing to do with my journalism—for my being hauled off for special security checks on international flights. As has so far happened to me twice in the past few months.

And this, I am assured, is not a violation of my First Amendment freedoms.

Welcome to the new normal.

Note: If you find yourself on a Terrorist Watch list, go to CUNY CLEAR or contact them at 718-340-4558.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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