WASHINGTON — Seven people, including an Air Force sergeant and a retired minister, sued the government Tuesday, saying that they had been wrongly placed on "no-fly" lists and subjected to humiliating interrogation and intrusive searches at airports.
The national class-action suit, filed in Seattle by the American Civil Liberties Union, seeks to force the federal Transportation Security Administration to develop an effective grievance system for people mistakenly singled out in anti-terrorism screenings.
"Our clients are completely innocent of any wrongdoing and possess no affiliation with terrorists or criminal activity," said Reginald Shuford, the lead ACLU lawyer on the case. "Worst of all, beyond the stigma, there is no way at all to clear one's name from the no-fly list once placed on it."
Plaintiff John F. Shaw, a retired Presbyterian pastor from Sammamish, Wash., said he had been repeatedly questioned, delayed and searched since 2002. "As a law-abiding citizen who is a retired member of the clergy, I was shocked to discover that I have been placed on the no-fly list," Shaw, 74, said in a statement.
TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield declined to comment on the specific allegations, but said most problems involve cases of mistaken identity. "You have aggravating inconvenience being dished out to people who are being misidentified," Hatfield acknowledged.
He blamed the current system of verifying passengers' identities, calling it "very limited and arguably obsolete."
Cases of mistaken identity should drop dramatically under a new computerized passenger-profiling system the government is creating, Hatfield said. But that system may not be in operation until next year at the earliest, and critics fear it also will be flawed.
ACLU lawyers said they hoped the lawsuit would lead to greater accountability and some disclosure of the inner workings of a secretive system, which they thought had flagged "hundreds, if not thousands" of innocent people.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the constitutional guarantees of due process and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Two of the plaintiffs are ACLU employees.
Government agencies maintain several security lists containing thousands of names and dozens of pages. The TSA has two main lists that are shared with airlines and other law enforcement agencies. People on the no-fly list are not supposed to be allowed to board, while those on a separate "selectee" list are supposed to be carefully searched.
If an innocent passenger's name matches that of a suspect on the no-fly list, the conflict must be resolved before that person is allowed to board, Hatfield said.
Earlier this year, Air Force Master Sgt. Michelle D. Green, 36, was surprised to discover her name was on the list. Based in Alaska, Green went to the Fairbanks airport Jan. 2 to catch a flight to Seattle for an assignment related to her job with a medical unit, according to court papers.
The agent at the ticket counter told her there was a computer glitch and asked for her military orders, her birth date and other information. After waiting about 45 minutes, Green got her boarding pass. She shrugged off the incident.
But the next day, Green was delayed at the ticket counter in Seattle when she went to check in for a flight to Honolulu. The agent asked if she had had problems before, and Green told him about the "computer glitch" the day before.
"The agent began laughing in full view of other passengers and explained that the reason I had been delayed was not due to a computer problem, but rather because I was on the no-fly list," Green said in a statement. "He indicated that I was likely to experience problems every time I flew."
On her return from Honolulu, the same thing happened in front of her superior officer. Green said she felt humiliated because of a "gross mistake" by the government. "I am not seeking monetary damages," she said, "but a fair and transparent process to remove my name from the no-fly list."
The TSA has an ombudsman's office that is supposed to help travelers resolve such problems by issuing a letter verifying the person's identity. But even that is not a foolproof remedy.
David C. Fathi, a lawyer with the ACLU's prison rights project, said he was issued such a letter after a run of problems at the airport. But he is still being stopped, and said he had been threatened with arrest for protesting his innocence.
"I am not a hijacker, I am not a terrorist, and the government has no reason to put my name on a no-fly list," Fathi, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, said at a press conference here Tuesday.
One solution would be for the TSA to issue the airlines a separate roster of people who have been mistakenly placed on the no-fly list, said the ACLU's Jay Stanley. The organization has created a complaint form on its Internet site for travelers wishing to join the class-action suit.
The TSA, meanwhile, is encouraging travelers to go to its website to report problems to the agency's ombudsman.