Constitutional law scholar on no-fly list
One of the most prominent names on the Transportation Security Administration's 44,000-person no-fly list is that of constitutional law scholar and emeritus politics professor Walter Murphy. Whether the ban is a case of mistaken identity or a reaction to Murphy's recent public criticism of the Bush administration, as Murphy alleges, is unclear.
Murphy tried to check in at the curb after arriving at the airport in Albuquerque, N.M., where he lives in retirement. An airline employee told him he couldn't be issued a boarding pass because he was on the TSA's no-fly list and put forth some conjectures on why.
"One of the two people I talked to said, 'Yes, you're on the list. Did you participate in any speech or marches?' " Murphy said in an interview. "And then before I could respond, he said, 'We ban a lot of people from flying for that.' "
Murphy told the employee that he had recently given a speech criticizing the Bush administration. "That'll do it," the employee replied.
Murphy then offered proof that he is a former U.S. Marine colonel, showing his retirement card to TSA officials. Ten minutes later, he was on his way.
Murphy's initial reaction was one of rage.
"I didn't [go public with the information] for three-plus weeks because the steam was coming out of my ears, and I did not want to simply shout invectives," he said. "I waited until I could laugh at parts of it; there is, after all, a comic value to a group of draft dodgers telling a war veteran that he can't get on an airplane."
The government could not "confirm or deny whether an individual is on the consolidated terror watchlist," FBI spokeswoman Cathy Milhoan said in an email, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence on which the list is based.
Milhoan declined to address whether public dissent against the administration could land someone on the list or whether the TSA frequently sees cases of mistaken identity.
The incident could be a case of mistaken identity, but Murphy attributes it to a September 2006 speech on campus in which he blasted the Bush administration for "systematically undermining the Constitution." The lecture was televised and posted online.
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 no-fly list was radically expanded and put under the aegis of the TSA, part of the Department of Homeland Security, as one of the new airline security measures instituted after Sept. 11, 2001. There have been several high-profile cases of mistaken identity in the past, including those involving a Marine returning from Iraq and at least two elected officials.
Computer science professor Ed Felten, who was part of a government advisory group on airline security, said that the no-fly database has to be matched with the relatively scarce information on passengers collected by airlines.
"Given a name like Walter Murphy, which is not a highly unusual name, it was most likely a mistake," Felten said.
Felten added that airlines are not told why a passenger is placed on the no-fly or watch lists and said he interpreted the airline employee's remarks as "a sort of guess ... rather than an authoritative statement on why he got on the list."
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.
On his flight back from Newark to Albuquerque, Murphy said that he had no problems checking in, but his luggage was lost.