Ex-guardsman on FBI watch list

Juneau man faces lengthy waits, difficulty flying because name sounds Arabic

Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Larry Musarra's trouble with the FBI began in late June, when the retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander, his wife Linné and their 12-year-old son Tim, who is developmentally disabled, checked in at the Juneau Airport. They were on their way to Portland, Ore., where Tim would attend a special school.

At the Alaska Airlines electronic check-in kiosk, Musarra typed in his confirmation code and the machine displayed a message asking him to see an attendant.

At the counter, Musarra and his family waited while the customer service representative clicked on a keyboard. The clerk became puzzled and said she couldn't get a boarding pass either. She called her supervisor. They called Seattle. Finally, 30 minutes later, the supervisor explained.

"She said, 'We are having trouble clearing your name. Actually, we can't clear your name. You are on an FBI list," Musarra recalled.

Musarra, 47, is a father of three who works for the U.S. Forest Service at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. He is white, of Italian and Irish ancestry, and was born in New Jersey. He has lived in and flown out of Juneau for seven years. Because of his work with the Coast Guard and the Forest Service, he has had more federal background checks than he can remember.

For a reason Alaska Airlines, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the newly created Transportation Safety Administration cannot or will not say, Musarra's name, which is Sicilian of Arabic origin, is on a list of suspects who pose a potential threat to airline security. And, at this point, there is no way for his name to be removed.

"I'm not the type of person who makes a fuss, but I am this all-American boy, and here I'm targeted as terrorist. It is just kind of funny," he said. "I'm betting it's the name. My name sounds Arabic."

On the way to Portland, the Musarra family was given an exhaustive screening with metal detector wands, their shoes were X-rayed, their belts removed and their bags searched before they were allowed on the plane. On the way back, the check-in clearance took so long, an airline agent had to hand-write Larry and Linné Musarra's boarding pass and escort them on the aircraft, minutes before take-off. Their seats already had been filled with standby passengers who then had to get off the plane.

"Everyone has been really nice," said Linné Musarra. "But if you are traveling with children who have special needs, this circumstance produces tremendous anxiety."

Musarra heard from other relatives with the same last name who had similar experiences. Since June, his brother has had his bags searched every time he flies. An uncle, traveling with a 91-year-old relative in a wheelchair, was searched and told he, too, was on the FBI list. When his uncle called the FBI, he was told no list existed, Musarra said.

During his Portland trip, Musarra read an article in USA Today that quoted an anonymous source at the FBI, saying the computerized databases at the FBI, CIA, Immigration and Naturalization Service and other agencies contain lists with scores of aliases, misspellings, alternative spellings and misidentifications of potential terrorists.

The story, which ran July 1, said without extensive field work there is no way to tell a terrorist's name from a misspelling. The source for the article also said many terrorist-suspect names are so common, there may be dozens of people with the same name.

Musarra called the local field office of the FBI, where an agent found his name on a list, and said there was no way to have it removed. She told him the best thing to do was to call the airline ahead of the time when he is going to fly, to prepare them for the complications, he said.

Juneau FBI Agent Mary Beth Kepner confirmed she had a conversation with Musarra, but directed all calls about the nature of the list to the FBI office in Anchorage.

Eric Gonzalez, FBI special agent in Anchorage, said the list airlines use was controlled by the Transportation Safety Administration, a new homeland security organization formed by the Bush administration since Sept. 11. Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans agreed the airline gets the lists from the TSA, and said the airline is mandated to use the list in the passenger-screening process. Evans and Gonzalez said they did not know a way to remove Musarra's name from the list.

From there, the origin of the list and the reason Musarra is on it are unclear, and mired in a world of federal, inter-departmental "information sharing" that has caused confusion since the inception of the TSA earlier this year.

Dave Steigman, spokesman for the TSA, said revealing any of the reasons a name may end up on the list could jeopardize national security. He denied the TSA had a list containing many spellings of Arab or Arab-sounding names.

"The TSA does not profile by ethnicity, ethnic origin, race or religion," Steigman said, and then directed all inquires about the list to the Federal Aviation Administration or back to the FBI.

Tommy Dome, a TSA employee, answered the phone at the FAA office in Anchorage.

"We're taking names of the people who hijacked airplanes. If you have a name like that you are probably going to get looked at more," Dome said.

At the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., FBI spokesperson Lauren Gulotti said it was possible Musarra also was the name of another person who was a suspected threat, but then referred questions to the Department of Justice, saying the lists actually came from that department.

Drew Wade, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the lists come from the FBI, adding that if someone was on a "no fly" list and was a serious threat, it was unusual they would be allowed on a plane. Instead, they would be detained, he said.

"Something doesn't add up here," Wade said.

Paul Bresson, another FBI spokesperson in Washington, D.C., was hesitant to agree the FBI would mistakenly put someone on a list. Rather, he questioned whether Musarra wasn't at least tangentially related to a terrorism suspect.

"How well do you know him? If someone is forbidden from boarding a plane there may be something in his background," Bresson said.

Bresson couldn't say why Musarra would be allowed on the plane if he was related to a terrorism suspect, saying he didn't have enough information. He also couldn't say why other Musarra family members experienced the same problem.

The FBI had no such lists before Sept. 11, Bresson said. The lists came about through interviews with suspects, and anyone mentioned in the interviews ended up on the list also. After someone was interviewed and cleared, they were removed from the list, Bresson said.

Other suspect lists also exist, maintained by other federal agencies, Bresson said. A person can end up on these for anything from a cash deposit at a bank of more than $20,000 to the purchase of a one-way airline ticket with cash. Musarra said he has done neither since Sept. 11.

Larry and Linné Musarra have adapted to their FBI list status by arriving three hours early to the airport, not bringing carry-on luggage, not wearing belts and wearing slip-on shoes, Larry Musarra said. He will be taking his oldest son to college Outside this week, and said he anticipates complications. With the complex nature of political climate in the United States, Musarra said he understands why the government should be cautious.

"It is not that there shouldn't be a list, it is just that we've traveled already (while on the list), and we don't fit the category," Musarra said. "We are not terrorists."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.  | Contact Us