Musarra: Travel a bit easier; but still on FBI list

Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2002

A retired Coast Guard officer who received considerable media attention last month because his Arabic-sounding name was on an FBI list of suspected threats to airline security says he's still having trouble getting on planes, but can check in at the Alaska Airlines e-ticket kiosks.

Readers with security-related questions or suggestions should contact Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Kathy Mathews at 321-4360.

"Still nobody's come forth to say this is a mistake," said Larry Musarra, a retired lieutenant commander who was born in New Jersey and who is not Arabic. "But something must have happened because I did the Web check-in, finally."

Musarra's trouble with the FBI started with his attempt to check in electronically at Juneau Airport in June. When he couldn't get a boarding pass, a puzzled gate agent told him his name was on an FBI watch list. After that, Musarra couldn't board a plane without exhaustive screening.

Though one official from the FBI said it is possible Musarra has been confused with someone else, numerous other officials at the FBI, Alaska Airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Justice, and the newly created Transportation Safety Administration, would not say why Musarra is on this list, or how he could get off. According to local officials with the TSA, federal employees who have talked to Musarra and the press have violated security, and have been disciplined.

Musarra is of Irish-Italian decent, and he maintains he is on the list because he has an Arabic-sounding name. Musarra is a former rescue helicopter pilot who owns and flies a small airplane, a factor which, along with the name, also may make him fit a terrorist profile, he said.

That doesn't explain why members of the Musarra family from Juneau to New Jersey have had similar experiences at airports. No Musarra-surnamed family member can board a plane anywhere in the country without be taken aside for a "random" screening, he said. At one point last summer, Musarra and his wife had to be escorted on an airplane with hand-written passes, minutes before takeoff.

After media coverage of his situation, Musarra was contacted by David Mitchell, the Juneau director of the Transportation Security Administration. Mitchell declined to explain how Musarra's name wound up on the list, or how it could be removed, citing security concerns, according to Musarra. Musarra said he was told by Mitchell that he would not have any more problems at the Juneau Airport.

"Mitchell was friendly, but it is so beyond him," Musarra said. "(This FBI list) thing is so monstrous, I don't think anybody knows how to handle it. (Situations like this) are happening all over the country. You'd think that it would get solved."

When Musarra, his wife and son arrived at the airport last week on their way to take Musarra's son to college Outside, there were still a few snags, despite Mitchell's assurances. Though they were met by a TSA agent, and all the Alaska Airlines ticketing agents were aware of Musarra's situation, it took extra time to get boarding passes, and his son had to cut open the boxes he had packed to take to school. An airline agent then provided first-class upgrades.

A TSA employee had met the family saying, "you should be cleared and pre-cleared and should be ready to go," Musarra said.

"But we had the same problem," Musarra said. "I was making a joke, like, how many flight attendants does it take to check a Musarra in?"

Returning from this recent trip Outside, Musarra discovered he was able to use the check-in kiosk, although he and his wife were still targets for the screening.

Kathy Mathews, spokeswoman for the local TSA office, said what Musarra experienced on his way out of Juneau was the bugs getting worked out of a new system designed to clear passengers such as Musarra "in a matter of minutes." In answer to specific questions about the list, Mathews said, Musarra shouldn't expect to get any specific details regarding his situation because to give specifics would compromise security.

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