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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Ted Kennedy and the No-Fly List Myth

Several Republican presidential candidates cite Ted Kennedy as a reason why they oppose President Obama’s proposal to block the sale of guns to known or suspected terrorists on the no-fly list. Kennedy, after all, was mistakenly placed on the government’s no-fly list, they say. But the Transportation Security Administration calls that a “myth.”

It has been reported many times that Kennedy had trouble boarding planes several times in 2004 allegedly because he was on a no-fly list. But the TSA in 2008 said the former Democratic senator from Massachusetts was “NOT on the no-fly or selectee lists.” Kennedy was “misidentified” as someone on the “selectee list.” Those on the selectee list “must undergo additional security screening before being permitted to board.” Kennedy ultimately boarded his flights and didn’t miss any flights.

The Kennedy Case

Kennedy’s decade-old air travel problems resurfaced in the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, by a U.S.-born Muslim who became radicalized while living in the U.S. and his wife, who was from Pakistan. In response, the president has called on Congress to give the federal government the ability to deny the legal sale of weapons to those on the no-fly list.

“To begin with, Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun,” Obama said in his Dec. 6 national address on terrorism. “What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon? This is a matter of national security.”

Critics of the plan — including Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul — say the no-fly list is riddled with errors and cite the case of Ted Kennedy.

On ABC’s “This Week” on Dec. 6, former Florida Gov. Bush said he opposed the Democratic plan to prohibit gun sales to people on the list because the list was too unreliable. And he cited three examples — “Ted Kennedy and Stephen Hayes the journalist and Cat Stevens.”

Here’s the exchange with host George Stephanopoulos:

Stephanopoulos: How about this issue of the no-fly list? You believe that people on the no-fly list should be able to buy guns?

Bush: I mean, Ted Kennedy and Stephen Hayes the journalist and Cat Stevens, I mean, this is not a list that you can be certain of. The first impulse of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is to have gun control. But the first impulse in my mind is let’s have a strategy to take out ISIS there so we don’t have to deal with it here.

Sen. Rubio invoked just Kennedy during a taping of CNN’s “State of the Union” the same day.

Rubio, Dec. 6: The — former Senator Kennedy — Ted Kennedy once said he was on a no-fly list. I mean, there are — I — we — there are journalists on the no-fly list. There are others involved in the no-fly list that wind up there. These are everyday Americans that have nothing to with terrorism. They wind up on the no-fly list. There’s no due process or any way to get your name removed from it in a timely fashion. And now they’re having their Second Amendment right being impeded upon.

And on CNN’s “New Day” on Dec. 7, Sen. Paul said, “One of the reasons there has to be a process is, you know, Ted Kennedy was on the watch list, so was Cat Stevens. It was a mistake, but would you want to take away their constitutional rights over a mistake?”

Kennedy’s case was an example of how the traveling public was inconvenienced by increased security steps taken in the early post-9/11 days. But he was not on the no-fly list.

Let’s go back to 2004 and let Kennedy describe what happened, as he told it during a Senate hearing in an exchange with Maureen Baginski, who at the time was the FBI’s executive assistant director of intelligence.

Kennedy, Aug. 19, 2004: I got on the watch list last April. I was taking a plane to Boston and I get out to the USAIR and I come up to the counter and I said I want my ticket.

They said we can’t give it to you. I say, well, wait a minute, here is a Visa. There must have been a mix-up. And the person behind the gate said, “I can’t sell it to you. You can’t buy a ticket to go on the airline to Boston.” I said well, why not. We just — we can’t tell you. Well, I said, let me talk to the supervisor on that. This is at five of seven. The plane is about to leave and finally, the supervisor said okay.

And I thought it was a mix-up in my office, which it wasn’t. And I got to Boston and said there’s been a mix-up on this thing to Boston. What in the world has ever happened? Is this what happened? Tried to get on the plane back to Washington. You can’t get on the plane. I went up to the desk. I said I’ve been getting on this plane, you know, for 42 years and why can’t I get on the plane back to Boston — back to Washington. And they said you can’t get on the plane back to Washington.

So my administrative assistant talked to the Department of Homeland Security and they said there’s some mistake. It happened three more times and finally Secretary Ridge called to apologize on it. It happened even after he called to apologize because they couldn’t — my name was on the list at the airports and with the airlines and the Homeland Security. He couldn’t get my name off the list for a period of weeks.

Now, if they had that kind of difficulty for a member of Congress, they’d have it — my office has a number of instances where we’ve had the leader of a distinguished medical school in New England and the list goes on. How in the world are average Americans who are going to get caught up in this kind of thing, how are they going to be able to get treated fairly and not have their rights abused?

It was widely reported at the time — and still repeated now — that Kennedy was on the no-fly list. For example, the Washington Post wrote on Aug. 20, 2005, about Kennedy’s recounting of his experience in a story headlined “Sen. Kennedy Flagged by No-Fly List.” The story’s first paragraph says Kennedy was “stopped and questioned at airports on the East Coast five times in March because his name appeared on the government’s secret ‘no-fly’ list.” The reality is more complicated than that.

There are two subsets of the terrorist watch list: the no-fly list and the selectee list. The Department of Homeland Security explains the difference on its website:

DHS website: The “No Fly” list includes individuals who are prohibited from boarding an aircraft. You are NOT on the No Fly list if you receive a boarding pass.

The “Selectee” list includes individuals who must undergo additional security screening before being permitted to board an aircraft.

As the Post story also said, “Kennedy was stopped because the name ‘T. Kennedy’ has been used as an alias by someone on the list of terrorist suspects.” Kennedy was not on the no-fly list or the selectee list; he was stopped because he had the same last name and first initial as someone who was on the selectee list, according to TSA.

In a July 2008 “myth buster” blog post, TSA explained what happened to Kennedy and two others who were “misidentified as individuals on the selectee list.”

MYTH: Ted Kennedy, Catherine Stevens, and “Robert Johnson” are all on the no-fly or selectee watch lists.

BUSTER: These individuals are NOT on the no-fly or selectee lists. They, and other Americans, are being misidentified as individuals on the selectee list. Today watch list matching is carried out by the airlines for every passenger manifest. In cases when individuals with similar names are misidentified, folks experience inconvenience like no remote check-in but they are allowed to fly. Once TSA’s Secure Flight initiative is in place the number of misidentifications will be GREATLY reduced. Under Secure Flight, TSA assumes watch list matching from dozens of airlines and implements a uniform, efficient matching process. Today the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) is a single point of contact for individuals who have inquiries or seek resolution regarding difficulties they experienced during their travel screening at transportation hubs–like airports and train stations–or crossing U.S. borders.

It’s worth noting that at the time Kennedy was stopped the responsibility for vetting potential terrorists fell to the airlines, not the government. The New York Times in an Aug. 20, 2004, article on Kennedy’s travel problems noted that “the current system is ineffective because the government does not provide the airlines with a comprehensive set of watch lists, in part because some of that information is classified.”

But that has since changed. The TSA is responsible for identifying and stopping would-be terrorists.

Other Cases: Stephen Hayes and Cat Stevens

Bush mentioned two other cases: Stephen Hayes, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard and a contributor to Fox News, and the British musician formerly known as Cat Stevens, who converted to Islam in the 1970s and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. What about those cases?

Hayes said he learned in September 2014 that he had been placed on the “selectee” list. He explained to Politico that he discovered his status after receiving extra screening — a full pat down and thorough check of luggage — on a flight to and from Minneapolis.

Hayes told Politico he believes the designation was tied to travel in which he and his wife booked a one-way trip to Istanbul for a cruise and returned to the U.S., a few weeks later, via Athens. A Southwest Airlines official later confirmed Hayes was on a watch list. Hayes told NPR in a Sept. 28, 2014, interview that he was in the process of getting his name taken off the list.

We could not independently confirm Hayes’ account. Dave Joly, a spokesman for the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, said that “the Terrorist Screening Center does not publicly confirm nor deny whether any individual may be included in the U.S. Government’s Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) or a subset list.”

As for Yusuf Islam, the man who wrote “Peace Train” was placed on the no-fly list, according to Homeland Security. In September 2004, a United flight from London to Washington, D.C., was diverted to Maine, where Islam was escorted off the plane and later sent back to Britain.

According to a BBC report, the Department of Homeland Security said Islam was put on the watch list “because of concerns about activities that could potentially be related to terrorism.” A spokesman said: “The intelligence community has come into possession of additional information that raises concerns about him.”

“Celebrity or unknown, our job is to act on information that others have given us,” then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said. “And in this instance, there was some relationship between the name and the terrorists’ activity with this individual’s name being on that no-fly list, and appropriate action was taken.”

Homeland Security officials told CNN Islam was on the watch list because of reported associations and financial support for Muslim charities with terrorist connections.

On a Web page dedicated to “dispelling rumours and myths,” Islam says “[n]o reason was ever given” for why he was put on the list. Islam says on the website that he “never knowingly supported Hamas or directed money to them” and he reiterates that “[l]ike all right-minded people, I absolutely condemn all acts of terrorism” including 9/11.

Islam had his lawyers seek to get his name removed from watch lists, and he has been able to fly to and from the U.S. since 2006. “I’m now free to travel to the US, so whatever it was has been resolved,” Islam states on his website.

What does all this mean?

Obama’s proposal would allow the government the ability to prevent those on the no-fly list from legally purchasing weapons. His proposal is more narrow than a Senate Democratic proposal offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would extend that government right to everyone on the so-called consolidated terrorist watch list, which includes more than 1.1 million people as of December 2013, as we recently wrote. Feinstein’s office notes that simply being on the list wouldn’t automatically prohibit the sale of a gun. Feinstein’s bill stated that the attorney general also must have a “reasonable belief” that the weapon would be used in connection with terrorism in order to deny the sale or transfer.

There were about 6,400 U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents on the no-fly list as of last year, Terrorist Screening Center Director Christopher M. Piehota told a House committee at a Sept. 18, 2014, hearing.

We take no position on either proposal, but the fact is that Feinstein’s proposal would have covered journalist Stephen Hayes and musician Yusuf Islam, while Obama’s proposal would have only pertained to Islam. And neither of the proposals would have applied to Ted Kennedy.

— Eugene Kiely and Robert Farley