Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Francisco “Kiko” Martinez, a Colorado civil rights attorney and long-time Chicano activist, was flying home from visiting family in Washington state. At the Salt Lake City airport, federal officials barred him from making his connecting flight back to Colorado. After they questioned and prohibited him from boarding his flight, he ended up taking a bus home.
Turns out he was on the “no fly” list, a shadowy roster of thousands of people the government has identified as potentially having links to terrorism. People can end up on the list because of legal political activity or membership in legal groups; or just because they have the same name as someone the government is keeping an eye on. Those erroneously listed have included an Air Force sergeant, an attorney, a minister and even children.
Since November 2001, the Transportation Security Administration has adhered to two lists: a “no fly” list that prevents people from boarding any commercial airliner and a “select list” that subjects them to extra screening and questioning.
In 2003 a broader “U.S. master terror watch list” combined 12 government lists into a register of more than 100,000 people. The list, officially called the FBI-CIA Terrorist Threat Integration Center, is meant to “create a structure to institutionalize sharing across agency lines of all terrorist threat intelligence,” according to a government fact sheet.
Martinez likely made it onto these lists because of 1973 charges related to package bombs sent by Chicano activist groups. He fled to Mexico from Colorado, saying he feared for his life since local police officers were out to get him. He eventually went to trial in 1980 after crossing back into the United States. The charges were either dropped or ended in acquittals.
On three other occasions while driving, Martinez, 60, has also been detained by law enforcement for no obvious reason beyond his activist past. In July 2000, police held him after he got a speeding ticket in Pueblo, Colo., and in December 2004, in Morris, Ill., when he and his family were driving back from a national cross-country meet his son was competing in.
Most recently, he was detained on April 19, 2005. While driving back from giving a speech at the University of New Mexico, a state trooper and Pojoaque tribal officer pulled Martinez over. He was held while the officers called an FBI agent, who asked questions, then ordered his release. This summer he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Santa Fe challenging the detention.
And on Dec. 4, Martinez filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Chicago, charging that Illinois state police and local FBI agents violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure during the Morris traffic stop. Since Martinez can’t fly, at a Chicago press conference about the lawsuit, attorney Jim Fennerty of the National Lawyer’s Guild placed his photo on an empty chair with a phone broadcasting his voice to media.
The next day, Martinez spoke with In These Times.
How did you end up on the watch list?
I was placed on the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File (VGTOF). Basically the only guidelines for being placed on that list are that a police officer nominates you. That’s what we think happened to me. The government won’t confirm or deny it. The only way we figured it out is on the police reports from Colorado and New Mexico it mentions the VGTOF.
What effect has this had on your life and work?
We supposedly have a constitutional right to travel, but I can’t get on a plane. If I drive, even the slightest infraction can result in a detention of one to three hours or more. I have to be careful who I travel with because I don’t want to subject most people to what I have to go through if I’m stopped.
And. of course, there’s the racial profiling that happens on most highways. The time I was stopped in Colorado [in 2000], I think it was racial profiling. I was driving an Oldsmobile sedan fixed up nice, they probably thought a young gangster was driving it.
The world is a fast place these days, so this has really slowed me down, since I can’t fly or drive long distances.
Do you truly feel you are not able to fly?
I wasn’t allowed to fly before. I don’t want to subject myself to that humiliation again.
How does the current surveillance and monitoring of activists or suspected dissidents – through things like the watch list – compare to the situation in the ’60s and ’70s?
The current technology enables them to access and use that data much quicker than in the ’60s and ’70s. Then, the police would have contact cards they’d keep on people. Now, they just type your information into a computer and it comes up.
Do you think the government intends this watch list to have a chilling effect on political speech or activity?
I’m sure they figured it would. It chills people’s will to exercise their First Amendment rights. A lot of people are afraid they will lose their job or it will affect their family [if they get placed on a list like this].
I see this as the next generation of COINTELPRO [the infamous FBI program run from 1956 to 1971 which tried to destabilize dissident groups through harassment, surveillance and infiltration]. It’s set up to destroy and neutralize things.
After Watergate and the Nixon era, there was a movement to prevent the government from spying on people unless they really had a reason to. But this so-called war on terror has given them a pretext to increase spying again. People are starting to speak out about it, but who knows when the next terrorist attack will happen? Then that will mean they can take away even more of our rights.
Along with activist histories like yours, what current activities or affiliations do you think are landing people on the list?
Environmentalists, immigrant-rights advocates, attorneys and individuals who speak out on behalf of those who are targeted, antiwar activists, media persons who are not embedded with the government, black nationalists, Puerto Rican independentistas, indigenous nation advocates and others who struggle against corporations and the government dominated by corporations [are all at risk].
You were involved in radical movements tied to violence 30 years ago. Do you think there’s a valid reason for having you on a list like this?
The guidelines for the VGTOF say you must be part of an “ongoing organization.” But these things happened 25 or 30 years ago. The state has such a long memory, even if generations of agents have passed on, they will keep you on the list.
But if they just followed their own guidelines, I wouldn’t be on it. Also it says you can only be detained if they have reason to believe you have or are about to commit a crime. They had no reason to believe that with me.
Do you think this list is at all effective in preventing terrorism?
No, the way police usually find out something’s afoot is through informants – being there on the street. This is just random stops and searches and seizures. Many people don’t know their constitutional rights and will agree to searches.
As a tactical matter, it’s hard to tell a policeman no. If you buck them a little, it gets them mad. With police so aggressive, with Tasers and steroid rages [refusing a search could mean trouble]. Most of the country’s interstates are considered drug routes, so an officer could always use the pretext of the war on drugs.
What do you hope to accomplish with the lawsuits?
Something productive will come of it. At least we are able to engage the government, otherwise they would never talk to you about it. We’re hoping by bringing more attention to this, more people will take steps to find out if they are on the list.
What do you think will happen with the cases filed in Chicago and New Mexico?
Well, they’ve assigned the Chicago case to Judge Amy St. Eve, [a Bush II appointee] who’s hearing the Muhammad Salah case [a Chicago area grocer accused of financing Hamas]. She’s made some terrible moves in that case. In New Mexico, the government is saying they don’t want their agents deposed, they don’t want discovery; that the case involves state secrets and national security.
Not all judges are falling into lockstep with the Department of Justice. Some judges are ruling against the government, so the Department of Justice is trying to settle cases so the Bush gang can continue its imperial presidency and be a secret government.
Are you hoping to get off the list?
I don’t think you can ever really get off the list. They’ll always have another generation of lists.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.