Terrorist watch list tags Massachusetts senator

Despite his famous face, Kennedy is repeatedly refused airline tickets


WASHINGTON - The meeting had all the hallmarks of an ordinary congressional hearing. There was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, 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 yesterday, Kennedy offered himself up as Exhibit A.

Between March 1 and April 6, airline agents tried to block 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 screens for decades, the airline agents acted as if they had stumbled across a fanatic who might blow up an American airplane.

Kennedy said they refused to give him his ticket.

"He said, `We can't give it to you,'" Kennedy said, describing an encounter with an airline agent. "`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," 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 plane?'"

The Senate chamber erupted in laughter.

Kennedy said his situation highlighted the situation 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 no-fly lists and could not find a way to clarify their identities.

In Kennedy's case, airline supervisors in each instance 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 Kennedy in early April to apologize and to promise that the problems would be resolved, another airline agent tried to stop 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 senator.

At the hearing, Kennedy wondered how ordinary citizens could navigate the tangled bureaucracy if a senator had so much trouble.

Asa Hutchinson, a senior official with the Department of Homeland Security who was testifying at the Senate hearing, said his department was working to address the situation. He said travelers who encountered such problems should contact the ombudsman at the Transportation Security Administration, a division of homeland security, who would help them take the necessary steps to clarify their identities.

"There is a process to clear names," Hutchinson, the department's undersecretary for border security, told Kennedy at the hearing. "But it does illustrate the importance of improving the whole system, which we are very aggressively working to do."

Monday, Hutchinson had told Congress that homeland security officials planned to take over the process of checking the names of airline 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.

Lawyers for the ACLU 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 Kennedy's efforts to clear his name demonstrated the absurdity of the no-fly system.

"If you're Ted Kennedy, you can call a friend," said ACLU lawyer Reginald Shulford. "If you're an average citizen, you cannot. You can complain to the Department of Homeland Security, but to no avail."

At the hearing, Kennedy said, to much laughter, that he did not believe the mistake was a conspiracy engineered by his Republican colleagues in the Senate. And as Hutchinson offered up his apologies, Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah responded jokingly in kind.

Hutchinson said to Kennedy: "Senator, we do regret that inconvenience to you."

Hatch interjected, "Quit smiling when you say that."

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