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Is Princeton Professor and Retired Marine on Government No-Fly List for Criticizing the White House?

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Princeton professor and retired Marine Colonel Walter Murphy has been described as one of the “most distinguished constitutional scholars of the 20th century.” Murphy recently learned his name appears on the government’s no-fly list — perhaps because he has criticized the Bush administration for abusing the Constitution. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest has been described as one of the “most distinguished constitutional scholars of the 20th century.” His name is Walter Murphy. He is a professor emeritus at Princeton University, the author of many books. He is also a retired Marine colonel.

Earlier this week, he wrote a widely read Internet column on how he recently learned his name appeared on the government’s no-fly list, perhaps because he has criticized the Bush administration for abusing the Constitution. Walter Murphy joins us now on the line from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Murphy.

WALTER MURPHY: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you?

WALTER MURPHY: Well, it was — briefly, I went tried to — I went to the — what’s called here the Sunport — the airport and tried to check in to fly to Newark and then to go down to Princeton for a conference on my latest book. And the man at the curb-in check-in says, “I can’t give you a boarding pass, because” — the words he used — “you’re on the terrorist watch list.” I was rather incredulous. And my first reaction was “Oh, God, I probably punched the wrong button when I was trying to make reservations.” And he said, “You’ll have to go inside.” He chatted with me for a couple of minutes.

I went inside, talked to a clerk, who said, “Yes,” and he used the words “terrorist watch list.” And I say, “That can’t be,” and I had my Marine ID, I showed. I said, “I’m a retired colonel in the Marine Corps.” Most people were very polite, very sympathetic. The guy says, “Oh.” And so, he said, “Can I take this? I will go inside and talk to the people.” I assumed the people were from Transportation Security Agency, and I said, “Sure.” And he came back in about 10 minutes — of course, it seemed like 10 hours — and said, “Alright, I can give you your boarding pass.” And he did.

There were two American Airlines people there. And I don’t know — you know, I can’t remember now who was saying what, because the more I thought about it and realized it wasn’t my mistake that I was in there, I began having a little smoke come out of my ears. But one of the two people I talked to asked, “Have you been in any peace marches?” And then, before I could answer, he says, “We ban a lot of people from flying for that.” And then I said, “No, but I did give a speech attacking George Bush.” And he said, “Oh, that will do it.”

And when I got on board, there were no more problems. I had to change planes in Dallas, but, of course, I didn’t have to check in anywhere.

Coming back to Albuquerque from Newark, I went through easily, but when I arrived in Albuquerque, my luggage had been lost. Now, that could be sheer coincidence, because airlines are great at losing luggage. And it showed up — I don’t know exactly when it showed up, because my plane got in about 6:00-6:30. I went to bed at 11:30, our time, which was 1:30 by the time I had gotten up. And I just couldn’t stay up any longer. I left a note on the door saying, “You have my permission to leave the luggage.” And when I woke up the next morning at about 6:00, the luggage was there.

I tried to find out what happened, why, etc. The Transportation Security Agency and the Homeland Security people will not tell you who is on the list. And I found out how the list is — well, I haven’t found out how the list is made up, but what I’ve been able to gather from a reporter from The Washington Post who has been following, not me, my story, but generally what the TSA and Homeland Security do is that they get a list of possible suspects from the CIA and the FBI. And then they cull through these, maybe add some, and put out several lists of varying degrees of badness. And the terrorist watch list, if you’re on the ultimate one, you can’t fly under any circumstances. The others have to be checked carefully, and I don’t know what gradations. And the problems with the list, in that (a) we cannot find out exactly how it’s compiled; (b) we cannot find out who compiles it; and (c) the Homeland Security agency or department refuses to explain what criteria they use. They’ll also not tell people who is or who is not on it. So we have essentially a secret list, compiled in secret by secret agents using secret standards.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Murphy, I wanted to read for you the response. We invited both American Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration onto the program.

WALTER MURPHY: Oh, good. Good.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Wagner, a spokesperson for American Airlines, issued the following statement to Democracy Now! He said, “The TSA administers the list. Neither American Airlines nor any other airline is in charge of security. That is the TSA’s domain, and the TSA should be the agency you request to speak about this matter. It is true, though, that when a passenger is required to undergo additional security screening, they must check in with a ticket agent. That’s the extent of the matter in relation to American Airlines.”

WALTER MURPHY: Now, I have no problem with American Airlines —

AMY GOODMAN: One other thing, the TSA did not respond to our inquiries. A spokesperson from the TSA told, however, “Individuals who receive a boarding pass are not on a no-fly list. TSA doesn’t have an interface at ticket counters. This would have been an airline employee who didn’t speak on behalf of the TSA. The watch lists contain only people who are known threats to aviation. If someone is simply exercising the First Amendment rights, they will not be on the list.”

WALTER MURPHY: Well, of course, I agree. I mean, American Airlines, I find, acted perfectly properly in this. Both people were polite, they were efficient. They explained they were simply carrying out TSA policy.

Now, the difficulty with the TSA statement is that too many people have been banned from flying. I’ve gotten communications from several critics of Bush who said they tried to show up and fly, and they were banned. Now, the TSA also didn’t explain — they have several lists. One is absolutely they can’t fly. The other is you’re double-checked, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Murphy, we have to go, but I understand today you are flying for the first time since then?

WALTER MURPHY: Yeah, I’m going to try.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I hope this conversation doesn’t get in your way.

WALTER MURPHY: I hope not. Well, thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks very much. Professor Walter Murphy is a constitutional law scholar, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University. His latest book is called Constitutional Democracy: Creating and Maintaining a Just Political Order.

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