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Iconic Senator Is Suspicious to Zealous Airport Screeners

Kennedy keeps getting extra scrutiny trying to board. He asks how the average flier copes.

August 20, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — He bears a name known around the world and was famous across America when President Bush was in high school. But that doesn't necessarily cut any ice -- not even in his own hometown -- with those who are charged with protecting the traveling public from terrorists.

As Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told a Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, zealous airline employees in Boston, New York and Washington tried to keep him off flights or subjected him to extra screening on five occasions in the last six months, apparently because someone with a similar name, if not a similar appearance, was on a federal watch list of possible terrorists.

In at least one instance, a US Airways ticket agent refused to let him board. "I said, 'I've been getting on this plane for 42 years,' " Kennedy said. " 'Why can't I get on the plane back to Washington?' "

The agent said the senator's name was on a list. When Kennedy asked why, he was told, "We can't tell you."

Kennedy was allowed to board only after a supervisor was summoned and recognized the senator. On other occasions, he was subjected to extra screening before being permitted on his flight.

In all, he has been specially scrutinized five times. After each of the last three, his staff called the Homeland Security Department, and after the last incident, Secretary Tom Ridge called Kennedy to apologize.

"If they have that kind of difficulty with a member of Congress, how in the world are average Americans, who are getting caught up in this thing, how are they going to be treated fairly and not have their rights abused?" Kennedy asked Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, who appeared Thursday before the Judiciary Committee.

Hutchinson apologized for "any inconvenience" to the senator. He noted that travelers who had problems could call the Transportation Security Administration ombudsman for help.

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said, "Sen. Kennedy is not and never has been on a no-fly list."

A Homeland Security official who asked not to be identified explained that someone with a similar name was on another list -- the "selectee" list. People on that list must undergo special screening before being allowed to board a plane. Kennedy was never grounded, the official said.

Kennedy's misadventures appear to illustrate a problem to which the Sept. 11 commission called attention in its recent report that castigated the nation's defenses against terrorism before and after the attacks of 2001.

The no-fly and selectee lists, though developed by the government, are administered by the airlines. The airlines, which believe they have no discretion, routinely notify law enforcement when a passenger's name appears to match a name on one of the lists.

The Sept. 11 commission recommended that the government administer the lists.

*

Times staff writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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