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Loss of Good Name Irks Flier

A Seal Beach woman finds herself on the federal watch list of suspected terrorists. She's a grandmother, a poll worker -- and mad.

October 15, 2006|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

She was blithely planning a trip to visit her grandson in Maryland last November when Mary Ann McCabe learned that she might be a threat to national security.

Unable to get a boarding pass on her home computer or at an airport kiosk, the Seal Beach resident went to the ticket counter where the agent gave her the bad news.

She is on "the list," the federal government's watch list of international travelers who might be a threat to U.S. aviation -- the same list that presumably contains the names of sought-after terrorists and known criminals.

McCabe, 68, is a grandmother, a Republican, a hospital volunteer and, by the government's thinking, possibly dangerous. Her friends jokingly wonder if it's even possible to be a Republican and a terrorist at the same time.

"I'm angry, upset and frustrated," she said in a flash of temper. "That about sums it, except for the other things I can say that can't be printed in your paper."

Married for 46 years to a retired technology manager, McCabe has four children and three grandsons. She has lived in Seal Beach since 1965, has volunteered at Los Alamitos Medical Center for 19 years and considers herself a model citizen.

"I've voted in every election since 1960 (for John F. Kennedy). I'm a volunteer on election day. I'm an NPR listener. Does that make me a terrorist?" she said.

Unfortunately for McCabe, ticket agents have told her, she has the same name as another woman who the Transportation Security Administration apparently thinks is a security threat.

McCabe said she had no problems boarding an airplane until last year, when her name suddenly caught the attention of the TSA.

The watch list, also known as the selectee list, is separate from the better-known no-fly list, which bars people from boarding airplanes. TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said the watch list is updated frequently. The names on the list are confidential.

The list includes the names of "people who may be a threat to civil aviation," said Melendez. He declined to say if Mary McCabe or Mary Ann McCabe is on it, citing national security.

However, ticket agents at Southwest and United airlines have dropped enough clues to let McCabe of Seal Beach know that her namesake may be a troublemaker.

McCabe, who grew up in Kansas and graduated from Rosary College in Illinois, said that one agent asked her if she ever went by "Mary McCabe" or had lived in Philadelphia.

Two weeks ago, when she flew to Wichita for her 50th high school reunion, McCabe said, a ticket agent asked if she was Mary McCabe from Burlingame but did not specify a state.

Though she has been allowed to fly each time, McCabe said, it is the inconvenience of waiting in long lines at the ticket counter and the embarrassment of being questioned by an agent before being cleared to fly that are nettlesome.

"They ought to have a special counter for terrorists or suspected terrorists to speed things along," she said jokingly.

Melendez said the government offers a solution of sorts through its clear list. McCabe said she had "already jumped through that hoop."

She filled out the required TSA forms and provided a certified copy of her birth certificate and notarized copies of her passport and driver's license to prove who she is.

And yet, Melendez said, "it's still not 100%" that McCabe will be permitted to print a boarding pass at home or an airport kiosk.

"She'll probably still have to go to the ticket counter to check in," said Melendez. "The clear list speeds up her identity verification."

He declined to say how many names are on the watch list or how many people find themselves in McCabe's shoes. But the identity problem is common enough for the TSA to call complaints about it routine.

"This is a routine call for us. It's unfortunate that people share same names and have to go through this inconvenience when they go to the airport," Melendez said.

But inconvenience is the price Americans pay for safe travel, he said.

McCabe is not comforted that the government is doing this for her safety.

"What is all this secrecy stuff? What is the point of allowing people to get their names on the clear list if they don't give us a chance," she said. "It's an insult to me as a good citizen. I'm being harassed for something I'm not responsible for."

The situation has caused stress, she said. "I think about this a lot. It's just not fair. I average three or four hours' sleep. My kids know it's upsetting me greatly."

Her son, Matthew, an ethics professor at Washington College in Maryland, reacted with indignation when he could not print her boarding pass at home or an airport kiosk for her return flight from Baltimore last year.

"The ethics professor had something to say about this, and some of it isn't printable," McCabe said.

Flying, she said, is just not much fun anymore.

hgreza@latimes.com

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