You may already be on a watch list

Posted: Sunday, September 15, 2002

Here's a snapshot of Juneau's Larry Musarra: Career military and therefore a patriot. Retired officer and therefore a leader. So thoroughly a fed that he's supplementing his Coast Guard benefits with a Forest Service job at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

Thinking Out Loud

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at streed@juneauempire.com.

While serving as a helicopter pilot on countless search-and-rescue missions, Musarra was a hero by job description and by deed. He risked his life to pluck civilian boaters and commercial fishermen from disabled and sinking watercraft in Alaska's storm-swept seas.

Mission success never was guaranteed. He was as good as his equipment, his training and the courage he could muster under the circumstances. Lives were saved. Like I said, he's a hero.

He's also a kayaker, a SCUBA diver and a teacher. In the summer of 2000, he and his wife and three sons traveled to Australia where they assembled an ultralight airplane. Musarra piloted it from one side of the continent to the other, a rented motorhome trailing behind, in a 21-week adventure.

With that curriculum vitae, Musarra would be a strong candidate for a variety of jobs. It would appear he has what it takes to be an FBI agent, had he chosen to go that route. Instead, Musarra, 47, has ended up on an FBI terrorism watch list.

Related Story:

Ex-guardsman on FBI watch list

It is fair to assume that a guy who spent 23 years in the Coast Guard and who reached the rank of lieutenant commander passed his share of background and security checks. But that was then and this is now - as defined by the U.S. departments of Justice and Transportation in the name of homeland security.

What does it mean to be on an FBI watch list?

You learn when you show up at Juneau Airport with your wife and your 12-year-old developmentally disabled son for the flight to his special school in Oregon that you cannot complete the automated self-check-in. You don't know why, so you ask an Alaska Airlines attendant for help.

She also can't get your boarding pass to print and doesn't know why. A supervisor gets involved and calls the company's headquarters in Seattle. Thirty minutes later you find out why:

"She said, 'We are having trouble clearing your name. Actually, we can't clear your name. You are on an FBI list," Musarra told the Empire's Julia O'Malley in recalling the airport experience that took place in June and which has been repeated, with variations.

The presumably dangerous people on the list can be cleared to fly on commercial jets. You may be a potential terrorist, but if you are screened with metal-detecting wands, offer your shoes for X-ray, remove your belts, and submit your bodies and your baggage to a thorough search - with appropriate results - you can board the plane.

"Next terrorist please step forward."

Big government incurs no penalties for conducting showy searches of retired lieutenant commanders as distinct from identifying visiting Muslim extremists who have roots in rogue nations, radical mosques or al-Qaida cells and who are paying cash for expensive flight lessons. It's hard to do good work and easy to make work. Somebody probably has a form to fill out.

Some people consider it unpatriotic to question government at all, much less during times of national security stress. But that's what is required when government undertakes broad-stroked assaults on constitutionally protected liberties. If a government can extend its reach deeply into our lives - and put patriots on watch lists - during times of national stress, don't be surprised if terrorism alerts are generated endlessly.

If the government "alerts" us often enough, some incident actually may correspond with the warning period. In which case, it will be claimed, the system worked.

Space does not permit a full listing of the denials and excuses offered by federal agencies in response to questions from the Empire about Musarra's status, the origins of and basis for the watch list, who controls it, who gets on it and how anyone gets off it.

Musarra believes he was watch-listed because a computer was programmed to create variations of Middle Eastern names. Is that all it takes?

Since our story was published on Wednesday, we did receive a visit from one newly assigned federal security agent. His message: By writing about the Musarra case, we helped the enemy.

To the extent he and his ilk employ form over substance in their search for enemies of the republic, my recommendation is that they look in the mirror.

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. Contact him at streed@juneauempire.com.



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