A funny thing happened to Senator David Smith on his way to a meeting of the Special Anti-Terrorism Committee.
He was screened as a potential terrorist.
It was Monday morning at the airport on Toronto Island. A Porter Airlines clerk kept the Liberal Senator waiting as she dialled a no-fly-list operations centre.
After 10 minutes a voice on the other end of the line pronounced that the 70-year-old was not, in fact, a threat. Only then was the corporate-lawyer-turned-politician allowed to get his boarding pass and go to the nation’s capital.
In an interview, Senator Smith told The Globe he has actually been singled out for added airport screening some 25 times in the past few months. That’s why he raised his case with federal functionaries later on Monday, when they gave scheduled testimony to the anti-terrorism committee on which the senator sits.
“Figure it out and tell me who I need to talk to,” he told security apparatchiks. “I almost missed my plane this morning.”
But no one could tell the senior-citizen senator why he faces such scrutiny.
There are a lot of David Smiths in this world. Clearly, one of them is feared to be out to destroy passenger airplanes.
And one of them is a Canadian politician whose flights are covered at taxpayer expense.
The fact that an Ottawa insider – the former chair of the anti-terrorism committee, no less – hasn’t a clue how to get his name wiped off a no-fly list does not bode well for ordinary citizens.
As officials start knitting together Canadian and U.S. national-security measures and databases, civil-liberties advocates fear more Canadians will be affected by blacklists. Ottawa has its own no-fly list – estimated to name about 2,000 people as threats to passenger airplanes. But Washington’s list is more expansive. Hundreds of thousands of people are said to be on it.
In both countries, people who have names similar to those of blacklisted individuals are scrutinized.
We know this because security snafus involving senators have happened before.
In 2004, U.S. Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy famously complained that he was kept from boarding flights because security guards had him confused with someone else on the U.S. no-fly list. “If they have that kind of difficulty with a member of Congress, how in the world are average Americans ... going to be treated fairly?” the Washington insider said at the time.
Senator Smith veered from the script to press his case when Canada Border Services Agency officials testified at the anti-terrorism committee this week. He raised it last week too, when Canada’s top spymaster was on the hot seat.
Check the parliamentary record and you’ll see that no one has answers for Senator Smith.
But the spymaster did commiserate a little. He offered this amusing anecdote.
“I have a brother-in-law called David Smith who has the same problem,” Richard Fadden of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told the Senate. “On one occasion they actually brought out the SWAT team ...”
Senator Smith has been told to talk to Transport Canada if he wants to clear his name.
Government agencies almost never reveal who is on their no-fly lists, nor explain how they compile them. Yet a news report does offer a possible insight as to why people named David Smith have trouble at airports these days.
Last December, a 21-year-old New Yorker was arrested and investigated by a terrorism task force. This apparently bored young man – whose name happens to be David Smith – allegedly spent a Friday night pointing a laser pen at aircrafts flying over Long Island.
Told about this case by The Globe, Senator Smith was intrigued. But he wouldn’t hazard a guess as to whether that case is affecting his ability to get through airports.
“I don’t rush to any conclusions about anything yet. But this has happened 20-some times,” he said. “Why does it keep happening?”