WASHINGTON – A top Homeland Security official has apologized to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (search), who was stopped at airports because a name similar to his appeared on a watch list (search) of people considered dangers to fly.
The Massachusetts Democrat said he was stopped by airline personnel five times as he tried to get on US Airways shuttles between Washington and Boston.
"If they have that kind of difficulty with a member of Congress, how in the world are average Americans, who are getting caught up in this thing, how are they going to be treated fairly and not have their rights abused?" Kennedy asked Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson (search) at a hearing Thursday.
Hutchinson, who apologized for any inconvenience to the senator, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for the federal government to take over the watch lists, which are currently administered by the airlines.
Another prominent Democratic member of Congress, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, said Friday that he also has been singled out for extra scrutiny when he flies because someone on a watch list has the same name. Lewis said he can't get an electronic ticket, must show extra identification and has his luggage checked by hand.
Lewis said one airline representative in Atlanta told him, "Once you're on the list, there's no way to get off it." Lewis said he filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security and even considered a lawsuit.
This week, Lewis got a call from another John Lewis — a faculty member at the University of Houston — who told him he also had encountered problems at airports because of his name.
"It's weird," the professor said. "But I like being classed with Ted Kennedy and the congressman. It makes me feel more important."
Kennedy said he was stopped at airports in Washington, D.C., and Boston three times in March. Airline agents told him he would not be sold a ticket because his name was on a list.
When he asked the agent why, he was told, "We can't tell you."
Each time, a supervisor recognized Kennedy and got him on the flight. But after the third incident, Kennedy's staff called the Transportation Security Administration (search) and asked to clear up the confusion.
The TSA said a name similar to Kennedy's was on the watch list, and that he was later flagged to go through additional screening. TSA also said that the airlines didn't handle the matter properly.
But twice after contacting TSA, Kennedy was stopped again at the airline counter.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits in San Francisco and Seattle over this issue, demanding that the government explain how wrongly flagged travelers can get off the lists.
Hutchinson said that people who experience problems can call the TSA ombudsman to clear things up.