WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union has filed the first nationwide class-action lawsuit challenging the U.S. "no-fly" list, questioning the accuracy of its data and methodology.
The list is one of the most contentious by-products of the post-9/11 security wave. The Transportation Security Administration compiles the names of people who may be security risks in air travel.
The seven individuals who are lead plaintiffs in the suit claim they have been repeatedly humiliated, delayed, and even threatened with indefinite detention at U.S. airports. The ACLU has assembled among the plaintiffs a member of the military, a retired Presbyterian minister, and a college student.
Chief among their complaints is that they can never seem to clear their name and escape the list. The ACLU suit notes that several had even obtained letters from the TSA stating that they were not a threat, but were still subject to delays and searches.
"There is no way to get off the no-fly list," says David Fathi, a plaintiff and ACLU National Prison Project senior counsel. "They have designated me a permanent suspect."
The ACLU contends the TSA's system of identifying individuals who pose a threat to air travel is severely flawed. The group says, for example, that many innocent people with the name David Nelson are placed on the no-fly list, including a star of the 1950s TV sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as well as one of the plaintiffs.
Fathi says there is no way to know why he was placed on the list. He says he and other plaintiffs have had no luck in finding out why they were included.
After landing on a no-fly list, Fathi says, he has been interrogated, escorted by police, and embarrassed, but was always eventually allowed on the plane.
While the ACLU opposes the list, it also criticizes the TSA for failing to enforce its own regulations--a charge the TSA vigorously denies.
"No-fly means that you won't get a boarding pass. If you were on that list, you wouldn't get on the plane," says Andrea Fuentes, a TSA spokesperson. "TSA is confident that the systems in place stand the legal test and we are secure in the accuracy and need for the no-fly list. There are issues of misidentification, which is a customer service violation, not a constitutional one."
The TSA would not comment on the ACLU suit.
The agency highlighted the success of its efforts before a House subcommittee last year.
"The combination of our screening force and enhanced technology has resulted in almost 800 arrests at screening checkpoints," said Admiral James Loy, an administrator with the Transportation Security Administration, in a statement made to a House subcommittee on aviation.
But privacy and civil liberties groups have been wary from the start of TSA efforts to screen and categorize airline passengers.