Why Is "Walter Murphy" on the No-Fly List?:
Over at Balkinization
, Mark Graber posts a story from Walter Murphy, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Princeton (and the author of one of my favorite books, Wiretapping on Trial
), about having his name appear on the No-Fly List. As I understand it, being put on the list doesn't mean that you can't fly; rather, it means that you have to speak to a supervisor and get individual clearance before getting a boarding pass. Professor Murphy writes that he discovered he was on the list when flying to Princeton for a conference last month about his new book.
Professor Murphy believes that he has been singled out because he gave a speech at Princeton last year criticizing the Bush Administration. He concludes that he is being harassed, and he wants this episode to be publicized to draw attention to the Administration's conduct:
That harassment is, in and of itself, a flagrant violation not only of the First Amendment but also of our entire scheme of constitutional government. This effort to punish a critic states my lecture's argument far more eloquently and forcefully than I ever could. Further, that an administration headed by two men who had "had other priorities" than to risk their own lives when their turn to fight for their country came up, should brand as a threat to the United States a person who did not run away but stood up and fought for his country and was wounded in battle [Ed: Professor Murphy served in the Marines in the Korean War], goes beyond the outrageous. . . . . Thus I hope you and your colleagues will take some positive action to bring the Administration's conduct to the attention of a far larger, and more influential, audience than I could hope to reach.
The post is certainly bringing the story to a larger audience; just a few hours after the story was posted, it has already drawn links from Atrios
and Crooks and Liars
The question is, why was the name "Walter Murphy" on the list? The Bush Administration has a lot of harsh critics; if being a harsh critic were enough to end up on the No-Fly list, wouldn't we have heard about it sooner? Professor Murphy's primary evidence that he was singled out for his speech is that when he mentioned it as a possible reason to an American Airlines clerk, the clerk responded "that'll do it." I wonder, though, would the airline clerk know? Perhaps, as the clerk apparently professed a lot of knowledge as to who gets on the No-Fly list. On the other hand, how much do you trust an airline clerk about something like this?
I'm also reminded of when Senator Kennedy's name ended up on the No-Fly list back in 2004. Based on news reports at the time
, Kennedy's name wasn't on the list to harass Senator Kennedy. Rather, a suspected terrorist had at one point used an alias of "T. Kennedy," and the name was then entered into the database. I wonder, did something like that happen here?
The "Walter Murphy" Story Takes Off:
We still don't know why the name "Walter Murphy" was put on the No-Fly list. But meanwhile the story has raced around the blogosphere in the last 24 hours
, drawing links from hundreds of blogs and spiking Balkinization's traffic today
to about 40,000 hits by 3pm. As you might have guessed, most of the blogs that link to the story have simply assumed it is true that the name was put on the list to punish Professor Murphy for his speech.
UPDATE: Ryan Singel, a reporter who has written extensively and critically on the No-Fly list for Wired News (see past stories here
, and here
), is highly skeptical about the story. From a post at Wired's Threat Level blog
[I]t's 99.9 percent sure the good professor isn't on any government watchlist for giving a speech. I have no idea why the counterperson would say that individuals are put on the list for joining anti-war protests, but that's just not true. . . .
Woe be it for this blog to defend the country's foolish watchlist system, but after having spent more than four years reporting on watchlists, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, and talking with persons flagged by the lists, I have never seen a single case of a person being put on the list for activities protected by the First Amendment. Feel free to drop any proof you might have via email or in the comments. . . .
I'm open to any evidence that the government has watchlisted American citizens for exercising their Constitutional rights, but I've never seen it.
That's very helpful to know.
Professor Murphy On Why He Thinks He Was Targeted:
The Daily Princetonian
has an interesting story on Walter Murphy and the No-Fly list that sheds more light on why Professor Murphy thinks he was intentionally targeted for his speech:
Murphy added that it could be a coincidence — "if you believe in the Easter bunny, yeah" — but said he doesn't think that it is.
"The coincidences are multiplying," he said. He cited the "outing" of CIA agent Valerie Plame immediately after her husband's public questioning of the rationale behind the war in Iraq and two of his personal acquaintances, who are critics of the Bush administration and are also on the no-fly list.
"It begins to strain credulity," he said.
The story continues:
Murphy doesn't think that his name — which, he points out, is half-German, half-Irish — is common enough to suggest a case of mistaken identity.
"I've only known of one other Walter Murphy, and that was a rock guy back in the '70s," he said.
Ultimately, Murphy said, there's little doubt in his mind that the airline ban is an annoyance deliberately devised for him by the government, albeit one that he has found amusing. "I was always sorry I didn't make Nixon's hit-list, but making Bush's hit-list is almost as good," he joked.
Assuming Professor Murphy's views are being represented here accurately, these explanations don't exactly inspire confidence that Professor Murphy's beliefs are justified. First, I can't see any connection between this and the outing of Valerie Plame. Second, a quick check with Peoplefinder
found 380 people with the name "Walter Murphy." The fact that Professor Murphy has "only known of one other" seems a bit myopic. And finally, even though it's a joke, the comment about regretting not having been on Nixon's enemies list suggests that Professor Murphy may be a bit too inclined to interpret events as having targeted him in particular.
Of course, none of this directly answers whether Professor Murphy was targeted. But I think it does add reason to think (in light of the sparse facts we know) that Professor Murphy may be reading a bit more into things than is warranted.
Lydon and Murphy on the No-Fly List:
Over at Open Source
, a Public Radio International program, Christopher Lydon has a very sympathetic interview with Walter Murphy about his experience in March at the Newark Airport. Murphy contends that his treatment at the Airport is "a Constitutional Crisis writ small, an attack on an individual who dares to point out" that the Bush Administration's view of Executive power is dangerous and troubling. (Here's the video
of the speech that Murphy believes led the Administration to target him.)
Much to my surprise, I am personally named and criticized by Lydon as a blogger who "wants to make excuses for the government" by questioning the story. Lydon states that it is just "fascinating" that I would think to question Murphy's belief that he is being harassed for his speech. Unfortunately, Lydon doesn't explain why asking questions reveals a wish to "make excuses for the government" as compared to a wish to figure out the truth. Anyway, if you're interested, the mention of me is about a third the way through the program.
The guest following Murphy is a Washington Post staff writer, Karen DeYoung, who points out a bunch of likely alternative explanations for Murphy's experience. She suggests that Murphy was probably just on the "selectee" list, not the No-Fly list, both because he was allowed to board the flight and because he wasn't even questioned on the return flight. Hmm, who knew that a Washington Post reporter would "want to make excuses" for the Bush Administration, too?
Finally, Ryan Singel also interviewed Murphy recently; you can find his extensive interview here
How Did Walter Murphy Get Off the No-Fly List?:
My apologies for posting so much on the Walter Murphy story — I think it's pretty interesting, although I realize some readers will disagree — but I wanted to flag this remarkable portion of Ryan Singel's interview
with Walter Murphy on getting off the No-Fly list. (Thanks to commenter "JonC" for drawing it to my attention.)
Recall that when Professor Murphy flew to Newark from Albuquerque, he was told that he was on the Terrorist Watch List. However, by the time of his return flight to Albuquerque, he was apparently no longer on the list; he was able to get his boarding pass without incident. So one obvious question is, if the Bush Administration is trying to attack Professor Murphy to suppress his speech, why would they take his name off the list just a day or two later? In the Singel interview, Professor Murphy speculates as to the reason:
I flew back without having trouble getting a boarding pass. But when I was in Princeton, I had breakfast with former student — a Republican congressman, and called a number of friends in my academic life, and the NSA monitors a lot of phone calls, especially cell phone calls, so I tried to use the words that might trip their computers like starting calls by saying, "I'm on the terrorist watch list" and "I've been criticizing George Bush" and if indeed these things are monitored, maybe they heard this, I don't know.
I realize that Professor Murphy honestly and genuinely feels targeted. But am I right that we're veering off into UFO-sighting territory here? Think about this for a second. Murphy suggests that the fact that he was only questioned once rather than on every flight doesn't mean that perhaps his name wasn't actually on the No-Fly list. Rather, it means that his name initially was put on the list to punish him for his Princeton speech — but then, by the time of the outbound flight, perhaps NSA or other government surveillance of him had tipped off the government that he was on the list, and led them to take him off
the list. I really don't mean to be harsh, but that strikes me as just, well, weird.
Professor Murphy also states in the interview that he knows other people have been taken off the No-Fly list. In particular, he suggests that "bright, highly paid legal secretaries" might be able to use connections to get lawyers taken off the list:
One friend who called me said, "I got put on, too." He used to be [a] fairly high-powered mover and shaker. "How did you get off?," I asked. "I'm partner in large law firm and I told my secretary to get me off," he said. "And I've been able to fly since."
Again, this just sounds really unlikely. (Okay, okay, get your mind out of the gutter, people.) I know law firm partners often receive excellent secretarial assistance, but why would a private law firm secretary know how to get a name removed from the government's No-Fly list?
Finally, the Singel interview sheds a little more light on the matter of Murphy's lost luggage. In the original post at Balkinization, Professor Murphy said the following about his lost luggage:
On my return flight, I had no problem with obtaining a boarding pass, but my luggage was "lost." Airlines do lose a lot of luggage and this "loss" could have been a mere coincidence. In light of previous events, however, I'm a tad skeptical.
From this passage, it sounds like Murphy's luggage completely disappeared. In the Singel interview, however, Murphy explains that the "lost" luggage actually just showed up a few hours late:
When I got back to Albuquerque, the airline said my luggage was lost. It was delivered later that night, sometime after midnight. I don't know when. I left a note on the door telling them just leave it. It arrived some time overnight and I found nothing missing.
Again, I realize that Professor Murphy honestly and genuinely feels targeted. And it's true that Professor Murphy is an academic giant; he's he author of many major and important works, including one of my favorite books, Wiretapping on Trial
. At the same time, I'm increasingly finding this story rather embarrassing. At this point it sounds to me like much ado about nothing, perhaps just a story of miscommunication or what happens when bored American Airline clerks in Albuquerque decide to have fun with a distinguished gentleman flying to Newark.
In any event, it seems to me extremely unlikely that Professor Murphy was actually targeted by the government for his Princeton speech.
What Exactly Happened at the Albuquerque Airport?:
I wanted to add one last post on the Walter Murphy story, addressing a part that I haven't focused on much before: the details of exactly what happened to Professor Murphy at the airport. (Sorry if this is a bit late; I wrote part of it yesterday morning, and didn't get to finish it until today.) In earlier coverage, I have tended to accept that Professor Murphy's name was in fact on the No-Fly list; but the work of some other bloggers and commenters has suggested that even this is untrue. Let's focus on what we know, based on combining the details of the original Balkinization post
with what Murphy told Ryan Singel
1. Professor Murphy arrived at the Albuquerque Airport and attempted to check in at the curbside. He was informed that he could not do a curbside check-in.
2. Professor Murphy inquired as to why he could not get a boarding pass at the curb-side, and was informed that it was because he was on a "Terrorist Watch List."
3. Murphy then handed his Marine Corps ID to the American Airlines clerk, who then left to show the ID to the TSA.
4. The American Airlines clerk returned about ten minutes later with Professor Murphy's boarding pass. (The sense I get from the Singel interview is that Murphy is still waiting at the curbside at this point, although it's not entirely clear.)
5. During the approximately ten-minute wait for a boarding pass, Professor Murphy had a discussion with an American Airlines clerk about why he was selected for the list. The clerk wondered if Murphy has been to a political protest; Murphy stated that he gave an anti-Bush speech; the clerk responded "that'll do it."
6. On the return flight, Professor received his boarding pass without incident or extra questioning. However, his luggage arrived a few hours late.
So the evidence here suggests three events that deviate from the unusual (or at least might do so). First, on one leg of the flight, Professor Murphy could not check in curbside and had to wait for ten minutes (apparently while still at the curbside, although that's not entirely clear) before his boarding pass was brought to him. Second, the American Airlines clerks told him (a) that he was on a "Terrorist Watch List," and (b) that in their experience protesting against Bush or giving an anti-Bush speech could get a person on the "Terrorist Watch List." Third, Professor Murphy's luggage arrived a few hours late on the return flight.
In trying to interpret these events, some background brought out by James Taranto
and others is helpful. First, there is no such thing as a "Terrorist Watch List." There are two lists: a No-Fly list and a "selectee" list. As I understand it, if a name appears on the No-Fly list the person is not allowed to board a flight period
unless the individual can prove they are not the person who the FBI had in mind when putting the name on the list. So for example, Ted Kennedy could fly even though his name was on the No-Fly list because he could prove he was not the same "T. Kennedy" as the terrorist suspect who used that name as an alias. As I understand it, that has to be done on each check-in for air travel, so if a name is on the No-Fly list people with that naame have to prove they are not that particular person targeted in order to fly.
On the other hand, the selectee list is a list of individuals who are subject to extra screening for either a particular flight or all flights for any number of reasons. Those reasons may include buying a one-way ticket or paying in cash. Also, I know from personal experience that at least as of 2 or 3 years ago, buying a round-trip ticket online that combines multiple airlines would put a person on the selectee list (apparently because the airlines only know of their leg and see it as a one-way flight). Like individuals on the No-Fly list, people on the selectee list for a particular flight are not permitted to check in curbside.
Why is this background relevant? Well, as Taranto
and others have noted, it suggests quite strongly that Murphy was never on the No-Fly list. Rather, he was on the selectee list for one leg of one flight. He was not permitted to check in curbside for only one leg; on the return flight, his name was not on any list at all. Given that so many people have been on selectee list before — I suspect most VC readers have been on the list for a flight at some point — it seems pretty unlikely that Murphy was put on the list for that one leg of one flight for any reason related to his Princeton speech. (Think about it — what kind of oppressive government would punish its critics simply by taking away their right to curbside check-in for a single flight?)
That leaves two remaning clues, the late luggage and the clerk(s)' statements. I trust that the luggage isn't bothering too many people. Note that the luggage was delayed on the return flight, the leg of the flight when Murphy was not on any list at all. Again, if an evil government is seeking to punish its critics, couldn't they come up with something better than delaying their luggage a few hours?
This brings us to the most significant evidence: the statements from an American Airlines clerk. Trying to analyze these statements is a bit tricky because we don't know who said them. Unfortunately, Professor Murphy didn't provide or recall any names. But the statements don't seem to provide much support for Murphy's beliefs. First, there is no such thing as a "Terrorist Watch List," which suggests that perhaps the clerk was just playing games or didn't know what he was talking about. Second, even in Murphy's retelling, they at best reflect a clerk's general impressions of the kinds of things that get people on the selectee list — not anything at all specific about Murphy's case. And in our searching over the last few days, we've had a pretty hard time trying to come up with evidence that what the actually was correct. When the story first broke, it seemed possible that an airlines clerk could have a better impression than most of us as to who was made a selectee. But the evidence to back up the clerk's statements didn't seem to surface. (There were a handful of reports of fears
that this was happening, but the actual evidence was sparse to nonexistent.) And once again, what are the chances that an evil government would punish someone for their speech by taking away their curbside check in for a single leg of a single flight?
Anyway, sorry for the long post. But I did want to cover this aspect of the story, as it seems to further confirm that this is much ado about nothing.
Update on the Walter Murphy Story:
Regular readers will remember a series of posts
back in April about the flying experience of Walter Murphy, a Professor Emeritus at Princeton, who felt that his name was placed on a Terrorist Watch List as retaliation for a speech he gave that was critical of the Bush Administration. Two months have now passed, and I was wondering what had happened to Professor Murphy with any flights he might have had in the interim.
I contacted Professor Murphy by e-mail, and he graciously agreed to update us on his flying experience since March. Here is his e-mail:
I've flown twice since the debacle in March, to Austin in April, TX, and to Charleston, SC, in late May. On both occasions, I was initially denied a boarding pass, once when I tried to check in via the WWW, once when I tried to check in via a kiosk in the airport, and both times when I tried to check-in at the counter. I was fortunate that, in each of the 3 instances, I encountered a clerk (twice for AA, once for Continental) who was willing to take up the cudgels for me. Eventually, I was issued boarding passes. As a judge in the audience at Princeton in September 06 warned me, after I publicly criticized Bush, "these people will find a way to punish you." Fortunately, I always carry an ID card showing I'm a retired Marine Colonel and that has, so far, made clerks if not the people from Homeland Security, sympathetic.
Professor Murphy adds that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, headed by Rep. Henry Waxman
, is looking into the story and is collecting evidence of other such cases.