Mexico pols trade barbs over $1.9M found in bags (AP)

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel News

VERACRUZ, Mexico – Political rivals slammed each other Tuesday over $1.9 million in wads of cash found stuffed into a state official’s luggage at a central Mexico airport. The find inflamed already rampant speculation about whether organized crime or illegal campaign money will influence the July 1 presidential election.

Stacks of cash, many of them bank-fresh 1,000-peso bills, were found when police decided to search passengers arriving on a private flight to Toluca, the capital of the home state of leading presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto.

The money came from Veracruz, a Gulf coast state governed by Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. The state official said he was making a hurried payment to a legitimate company for consulting services.

President Felipe Calderon’s National Action Party called that explanation “an insult to the intelligence of Mexicans,” whose tax laws, crime problem, strict campaign finance laws and economic problems make carrying such large amounts of cash very unusual.

“It is no coincidence that this amount of money was taken to Toluca … and that is precisely where the campaign of the PRI’s favored son, Enrique Pena Nieto, operates,” National Action said in a statement.

The PRI thundered back that the search, which authorities say had been random, was politically motivated.

“The PRI rejects any attempt to carry out a political persecution or the partisan use of law enforcement against political rivals,” the PRI said in a statement. “This is the kind of thing being done with the ill-intentioned and unfounded accusations that Veracruz state money was being used to support PRI campaigns. That is absolutely false.”

Analysts said both sides could be right.

“We have not only become accustomed to corruption, but that even when it appears they (police) are fighting corruption, the only thing they are really doing is trying to strike political blows,” said columnist and political analyst Jorge Zepeda Patterson.

The federal government, which is controlled by National Action, has refused to return the cash until the PRI government of Veracruz clears up all the doubts about it.

Mexico has strict limits on the amounts of money that can be spent on political campaigns. The PRI’s presidential candidate will be limited to spending 495 million pesos ($38.4 million) for the entire campaign.

Pena Nieto holds a wide lead in most opinion polls on the July 1 presidential election.

His party has made strenuous efforts to rebrand itself as a law-abiding and transparent party that has left behind the legacy of corruption that marked much of its seven decades of autocratic rule, which ended when the National Action Party defeated the PRI in the 2000 presidential election.

“I categorically deny that these seized funds have anything to do with the campaign,” Pena Nieto told reporters Tuesday. “And these allegations don’t seem very reliable to me.”

No one has alleged any links of the cash to drug trafficking or money laundering, although Veracruz state has been wracked by drug violence. Calderon said last fall that the state had been turned over to the Zetas cartel and he sent troops there to regain order.

Veracruz state Finance Secretary Tomas Ruiz said the cash was part of an approved state budget expense aimed at boosting tourism to festivals. He said it was being rushed in one lump sum to pay the firm before the state’s Feb. 2 Candelaria or Candlemas celebration, an annual weeklong festival famous throughout Mexico.

The company, Industria 3, appears on Mexican government purchasing websites as having received other governmental contracts for similar work.

In a telephone interview, Industria 3 executive Eduardo Fragoso refused to give details on the company’s contract, or discuss why the payment was made in cash. But he confirmed a statement saying the company had been contracted to “organize, promote and do publicity for” fairs in Veracruz state.

An advertising trade group official said big cash payments “are not a common practice” in the business. Alfonso Castaneda, assistant director of the Mexico’s advertising and public relations industry chamber, said such firms often wait some time to get paid or are paid in partial increments as work is done.

Juan Vergel Pacheco, a leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, called the state government’s story “absurd and infantile,” noting that at very least, the cash shipment violated government accounting procedures and tax laws.

The movement of money that way shows up in plain-old corruption scandals, Zepeda Patterson said. Corrupt officials often use vaguely worded “consultancy” or service contracts to get kickbacks, because it is hard to prove the “goods” aren’t delivered, or aren’t worth as much as is paid for them, he said.

“Typically, the way these things work is that they say, `I’ll give you 25 million pesos, and you give me back 15,’” he said. “Obviously, the political rivals automatically assume that it was money destined for electoral purposes, and that could be … but it also may have had a lot more vulgar aims, like simply enriching family bank accounts.”

Article source: http://us.rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/rss/aptrne/*http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/20120201/ap_tr_ge/lt_travel_brief_mexico_money_flight

Puerto Rico touts new plans for giant telescope (AP)

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel News

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Puerto Rico plans to build a hotel and a planetarium as part of a $50 million project to attract more visitors to the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, officials said Tuesday.

It is the first major announcement from the new managing consortium for the Arecibo Observatory, which fought budget cuts last year that could have forced its closure.

The planetarium would be built within two years and the hotel within five years, Puerto Rico’s Metropolitan University said. The school helps run the observatory with California-based SRI International, a nonprofit research group, and the Universities Space Research Association, a Maryland-based nonprofit founded under the National Academy of Sciences.

The plan is to convert an onsite cafeteria and staff housing into a hotel and restaurant to help promote the observatory as an educational tourism niche in the Caribbean, according to Puerto Rico’s tourism office.

Funding will come from several government agencies and public universities.

Among the project’s objectives is to create a doctoral program in astronomy and space science and to attract more than 50,000 students a year, said Federico Matheu, Metropolitan University president.

The 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) radio telescope that was featured in the movies “Contact” and “GoldenEye” currently attracts about 100,000 visitors a year.

In June, the National Science Foundation awarded a $42 million, five-year contract to the consortium to help finance studies at the observatory.

The radio telescope identified the first planets beyond the solar system, and it once sent a three-minute broadcast to the Hercules constellation in 1974 in a quest to contact alien civilizations.

The observatory, located on the island’s north coast, opened in 1963 and was operated by Cornell University until last year.

Article source: http://us.rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/rss/aptrne/*http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/20120201/ap_tr_ge/cb_travel_brief_puerto_rico_telescope_tourism

Interior, park service to stress tourism in Va. (AP)

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel News

RICHMOND, Va. – Tourism and travel are the focus of a scheduled visit to Richmond by the secretary of the interior and the chief of the National Park Service.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the park director, Jon Jarvis, are scheduled to lead a town hall meeting Wednesday on how to increase travel and tourism in Virginia. By doing so, they say local economies will benefit and jobs will be created.

Gov. Bob McDonnell will join Salazar and Jarvis for what they’re calling a major announcement regarding the Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Article source: http://us.rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/rss/aptrne/*http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/20120201/ap_tr_ge/us_travel_brief_salazar

AP Interview: Kidnapped Filipino’s daring escape (AP)

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel News

MANILA, Philippines – As his kidnappers took him in a speeding boat toward a notorious militant stronghold in the southern Philippines, Ivan Sarenas decided that he would die if he didn’t try to escape. When he saw some fishermen, he took his chance, diving deep and hoping his armed captors wouldn’t shoot.

The Filipino wildlife photographer, seized with two European tourists during a bird-watching trip, escaped Wednesday and spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday. The tourists Sarenas was guiding, Dutch Ewold Horn and Swiss Lorenzo Vinciguerra, remain missing.

“I am still traumatized,” Sarenas said. “I have guilt and concern for the welfare of my companions.”

Sarenas said he, Horn and Vinciguerra arrived in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province, on Sunday in search of the Sulu hornbill, said to be the most endangered hornbill in the world.

Tawi-Tawi is famed for virgin beaches surrounded by crystal blue waters but, like the most of the restive southern Philippines, it is undeveloped for tourism because of years of violence, including ransom kidnappings, bomb attacks and fighting between troops and Muslim rebels.

After spending three days in a mountain forest, the three were heading back to the provincial capital of Bongao by boat Wednesday when five rifle-toting gunmen on another boat fired warning shots and intercepted them, Sarenas said.

They were transferred to another boat, then a third boat. About two hours later, about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sarenas decided to jump over after he realized they were being taken north, in the direction of Jolo Island in the adjacent Sulu archipelago, the stronghold of the brutal Abu Sayyaf group.

“My assumption was we were heading to Jolo. That’s why I became scared because my life would be worthless once I reach Jolo,” he said, recalling reports of the militants’ atrocities, including beheadings of hostages.

He said he informed Horn and Vinciguerra of his plan. “They said, `Go. Good luck,’” he said.

He got his chance when they were about 700 yards (meters) from the shore. He saw three small boats with fishermen. He said he gambled that the gunmen wouldn’t shoot him with so many witnesses around.

He removed a tarpaulin cover over him and his companions. An M16 rifle fitted with a grenade launcher was lying on the boat’s floor; he held the muzzle to prevent the weapon from being pointed at him. Then he said he quickly rolled over to the side of the boat.

“I made a deep dive because I was afraid they would shoot me,” said Sarenas, a triathlete.

The kidnappers did not fire and left him in the waters where fishermen soon rescued him. He was brought to a village in Languyan township and later to a police station.

Sarenas said Vinciguerra worked as a taxidermist for a museum in Switzerland and Horn as a freelance taxidermist.

“Some of the birds they have mounted they wanted to see in the wild,” Sarenas said.

Muslim insurgents have been fighting for minority self-rule in the predominantly Christian nation’s south, and the Abu Sayyaf is the most violent group. The militants have been holding an Australian man abducted in December, as well as a Japanese and a Malaysian.

Tawi-Tawi Gov. Sadikul Sahali said the birdwatchers were accompanied by a town councilman and an unarmed police officer because the foreigners refused armed escorts.

After seizing them, the gunmen ordered the councilman, the policeman and the skipper out of the boat before escaping with their captives.

___

Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano and Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.

Article source: http://us.rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/rss/aptrne/*http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/20120202/ap_tr_ge/as_travel_brief_philippines_abducted_tourists

Deals: Cruises

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel Deals

Direct Flight

Climb aboard for a trip around the world of travel

Article source: http://www.newsday.com/travel/direct-flight-1.1394325/deals-cruises-1.3500706

Chile: VIP package to Lollapalooza fest and parties in Santiago

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel Deals

Lollapalooza on the flip side of the world? The 2012 mega-concert is slated for August in Chicago’s Grant Park, but here’s a way to get a jump on the music.

Lollapalooza Chile 2012 comes to Santiago for the second time for a two-day festival March 31 and April 1 with headliners Foo Fighters, Bjork and Arctic Monkeys as well as Latin American acts such as Los Jaivas and Illya Kuryaki the Valderramas. In all, more than 50 performers and bands will take the stages (six in all) at O’Higgins Park. 

Santiago Adventures offers a package that takes you there in style. The three-night tour includes VIP tickets  to the festival and after-parties on both days, an afternoon of wine-tasting, a tour of Santiago and three nights at a top hotel.

Dates: The tour runs March 30-April 2.

Price:  $1,795 per person, based on double occupancy. It includes three nights at the W Hotel or Noi Santiago, two-day VIP festival admission, food and beverage vouchers at the festival, after parties, wine tasting, a tour of Santiago and more. Separately, the best room rate I could find at the W was $469 a day and the best price on a two-day VIP pass was $333 a person. Note that this package does not include airfare, but the extras make it worth considering. (There’s also a $750 package that includes regular festival admission and stays at a mid-range hotel.)

Contact:  Santiago Adventures, (802) 904-6798

Article source: http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-trb-tc-lollapalooza-chile-20120201,1,6216794.story

Swamp alligators slither into New York City (not from the sewers)

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel Deals

Swamps aren’t very sexy. Dank places filled with slithering creatures don’t scream tourism, unless you’re from Louisiana. So how would one fare in New York City?

“Swamps in Louisiana have tremendous adventure-travel opportunities,” says Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. On Wednesday, he flew to un-gator-like Manhattan to oversee the installation of a 12,100-cubic-foot re-creation of a Louisiana swamp built inside the city’s bustling Chelsea Market.

The exhibit is free and might be a good way to sample the bayou before going to visit. The Chelsea Market swamp features 15-foot cypress trees, six adult and four baby American alligators, red-eared slider turtles and lots of plants that are swamp natives. Louisiana food and music and even some Cajun TV characters are expected to be on hand too.

And as for authenticity, well, it’s close enough. The animals are indigenous to the Southern state’s  swamps but actually came from a sanctuary in upstate New York (although three of the alligators were indeed born in Louisiana). 

It’s open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except Sunday and Feb. 8 when hours change to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The last day of the exhibit, Feb. 12, is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Louisiana tourism folks joined forces with the History channel to bring the ecosystem to the city. The idea in part is to drum up interest in the third season of “Swamp People,” the TV show that focuses on gator-slaying subsistence swamp dwellers. The show airs at 9 p.m. on Feb. 9.

“It’s authentic life in the bayous and swamps of Louisiana,” Dardenne says of the show. “They hunt alligators and live off the land.” (He also notes that alligator hunting — for skins and edible meat — is highly regulated in Louisiana.) Troy Landrey, one of the show’s colorful characters, will appear Feb. 8 at the NYC swamp.

So where to go to see the real thing? The Atchafalaya Basin in central Louisiana provides acres and acres of swampland that includes a national heritage area. Boat tours, birding, fishing are all reasons visitors go to see the bayou and its culture, Dardenne says. 

Until then, Manhattan will have to do.

Location: Chelsea Market, 75 9th Ave. (between 15th and 16th streets).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Article source: http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-trb-louisiana-swamp-chelsea-market-20120202,1,1470497.story

From shipwreck in Italy, a treasure now beckons (AP)

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel News

ROME – In the chaotic evacuation of the Costa Concordia, passengers and crew abandoned almost everything on board the cruise ship: jewels, cash, champagne, antiques, 19th century Bohemian crystal glassware, thousands of art objects including 300-year-old woodblock prints by a Japanese master.

In other words, a veritable treasure now lies beneath the pristine Italian waters where the luxury liner ran aground last month.

Though some objects are bound to disintegrate, there is still hoard enough to tempt treasure seekers — just as the Titanic and countless shipwrecks before have lured seekers of gold, armaments and other riches for as far back as mankind can remember.

It may be just a matter of time before treasure hunters set their sights on the sunken spoils of the Costa Concordia, which had more than 4,200 people on board.

“As long as there are bodies in there, it’s considered off base to everybody because it’s a grave,” said Robert Marx, a veteran diver and the author of numerous books on maritime history and underwater archaeology and treasure hunting. “But when all the bodies are out, there will be a mad dash for the valuables.”

The Mafia, he said, even has underwater teams that specialize in going after sunken booty.

The Costa Concordia was essentially a floating luxury hotel and many of the passengers embarked on the ill-fated cruise with their finest clothes and jewels so they could parade them in casinos and at gala dinners beneath towering chandeliered ceilings.

On top of that was massive wealth belonging to the ship itself: elegant shops stocked with jewelry, more than 6,000 works of art decorating walls and a wellness spa containing a collection of 300-year-old woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist most famous for his work of a giant wave framing Mount Fuji in the distance.

“It’s now a paradise for divers,” said Hans Reinhardt, a German lawyer who represents 19 German passengers seeking compensation for their loss. He said some of his clients traveled with diamond-studded jewels and other heirlooms that had been in their families for generations.

“They lost lots of jewelry — watches, necklaces, whatever women wear when they want to get well dressed,” Reinhardt said. “They wanted to show off what they have.”

The massive cruise liner itself is worth (EURO)450 million ($590), but that doesn’t take into account the value of all other objects on board, said Costa Crociere, the Italian company that operated the Costa Concordia.

Among the sunken objects are furniture, the vast art collection, computers, wine, champagne, as well as whatever valuables were locked away in safes in private cabins, the Costa Crociere press office said. The company still legally owns the ship and the passengers own their sunken objects.

“Quantifying this is impossible because unfortunately the ship has sunk,” Costa Crociere said. “Until the ship is recovered there’s no way to know what can be saved and what can’t.”

The ship ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio after the captain, Francesco Schettino, veered from his approved course, apparently to move closer to entertain passengers with a closer view of the island — a common cruise ship practice. Schettino is now under house arrest, facing accusations of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated. Seventeen people are confirmed killed in the Jan. 13 shipwreck, with 15 more still missing.

For now, the ship’s wreckage has been impounded by authorities and is surrounded by rescue workers, cleanup crews and scientists monitoring its stability on the rocky perch where it ran aground. Civil Protection, the agency that is running the rescue effort, says there is so much activity surrounding it now that authorities don’t see a risk of looting yet. It also says it plans to remove the wreckage before looters can reach it.

After the ship ran aground, authorities passed a decree preventing anyone from coming within a nautical mile of the wreck, a ruling that will be valid as long as the huge liner is still in place, the Coast Guard said.

“The ship is being guarded 24 hours a day. It’s not possible to even get close,” said Lt. Massimo Maccheroni, a Coast Guard official.

Civil Protection director Franco Gabrielli said recently that it could take seven to 10 months to remove the 950 foot-long (290 meter-long) ship once a contract is awarded for the job.

But Marx, whose 64 books include “Treasure Lost at Sea,” says that divers inevitably make a dash for sunken loot, even at great risk, and that they treat shipwrecks as a free for all.

He estimates that it will take about four to six months before a real treasure hunt will start — in part because divers will want to avoid the rough winter sea. He said some divers will be put off because the ship is still shifting on the reef it collided into and is considered unstable.

But soon, treasure hunters will go.

“Bright-eyed divers will want to make a fortune,” Marx said.

Even now, there are those trying to make a profit off the disaster. On eBay, all sorts of trinkets related to the shipwreck have already come up for sale, from coat hangers and medallions embossed with the cruise liner’s name to a Costa Concordia desk plan.

Marx said that everything that is pulled up from this now-famous ship will have value, noting that even coal brought up from the Titanic, which sank 100 years ago, has found eager buyers.

“Even the dishes, the crockery inside that ship — that’s going to be worth an absolute fortune,” Marx said.

Reinhardt, the German lawyer, says his clients would love nothing more than to get back their cherished valuables, which often carry emotional value. But at this point they are merely counting on a cash settlement.

“They would prefer to get their original stuff,” he said. “But they don’t have hope.”

Article source: http://us.rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/rss/aptrne/*http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/20120202/ap_tr_ge/eu_travel_italy_sunken_treasure

NYC agent arrested in latest TSA theft allegation (AP)

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel News

NEW YORK – A Transportation Security Administration agent stole $5,000 in cash from a passenger’s jacket as he was going through security at John F. Kennedy International Airport, authorities said Thursday, the latest in a string of thefts that has embarrassed the agency.

Alexandra Schmid took the cash from a Bangladeshi passenger’s jacket as it went along an X-ray conveyor belt Wednesday night in Terminal 4, said Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s police force.

Surveillance video showed Schmid taking the money from a jacket pocket, wrapping the cash in a plastic glove and taking it to a bathroom, Della Fave said.

The money hasn’t been recovered, he said. Police are investigating whether Schmid gave it to another person in the bathroom.

The 31-year-old Schmid was arrested on a charge of grand larceny and suspended pending an investigation. Her attorney’s name wasn’t immediately known.

Schmid, who lived in Brooklyn, had worked for the TSA for 4 1/2 years, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

“We do hold our officers to very high standards, and we have a zero tolerance policy for theft in the workplace,” Farbstein said.

Wednesday’s arrest came the same day that a federal judge sentenced former TSA screener Ricky German to eight months in prison for trying to steal a laptop from a passenger at the Memphis airport in December 2010. German was convicted of theft by a government employee, depriving a citizen of his rights and making false statements.

The cases are part of a series of recent theft allegations against TSA employees:

• Last month, an agent who worked searching checked luggage at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was suspended after the owner of a stolen iPad used the tracking feature on the device to locate it at the agent’s home. Police found seven other iPads there.

_On Jan. 10, former TSA agent Paul Yashou pleaded guilty to stealing a $15,000 watch from a passenger’s belongings at Los Angeles International Airport in May. He is awaiting sentencing.

• Two other former TSA agents at JFK were sentenced on Jan. 10 to six months in jail and five years’ probation for stealing $40,000 from a piece of luggage in January 2011. The agents, Coumar Persad and Davon Webb, had pleaded guilty to grand larceny, obstructing governmental administration and official misconduct.

• Also in January, authorities charged an agent at Miami International Airport with swiping items and luggage and smuggling them out of the airport in a hidden pocket of his work jacket. He was arrested after one of the items, an iPad, was spotted for sale on Craigslist. Another TSA employee was arrested in July at nearby Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after an airline employee reported that the man slipped an iPad into his pants.

• In December, police charged a TSA screener at New York’s LaGuardia Airport with lifting a laptop after a Detroit-bound passenger left it behind at the security station.

• Earlier last year, a TSA supervisor and one of his officers pleaded guilty in a scheme that lifted $10,000 to $30,000 from passengers’ belongings at Newark Liberty International Airport. A federal judge sentenced the supervisor, Michael Arato, to 2 1/2 years in prison and his subordinate, Al Raimi, to six months of home confinement.

___

Follow Associated Press writer Chris Hawley at http://twitter.com/chawley1.

Article source: http://us.rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/rss/aptrne/*http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/20120202/ap_tr_ge/us_travel_brief_airport_theft

AP Exclusive: US No-Fly list doubles in 1 year (AP)

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Travel News

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has more than doubled, to about 21,000 names, its secret list of suspected terrorists who are banned from flying to or within the United States, including about 500 Americans, the Associated Press has learned. The government lowered the bar for being added to the list, even as it says it’s closer than ever to defeating al-Qaida.

The size of the government’s secret no-fly list has jumped from about 10,000 in the past year, according to government figures provided to the AP.

The surge comes as the government says it’s close to defeating al-Qaida, after killing many of its senior members. But senior officials said the threat does not stop there.

“As long as we sustain the pressure on it, we judge that core al-Qaida will be of largely symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress on Thursday. “But regional affiliates and, to a lesser extent, small cells and individuals will drive the global jihad agenda.”

Those are the people added to the no-fly list, current and former counterterrorism officials said. Most are from other countries; about 500 are Americans.

“Both U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities and foreign services continue to identify people who want to cause us harm, particularly in the U.S. and particularly as it relates to aviation,” Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole said in an interview.

Affiliated terror groups in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Algeria and elsewhere, as well as individuals who ascribe to al-Qaida’s beliefs — “All are in the mix,” said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “And no one is claiming that they are shrinking.”

The flood of new names began after the failed Christmas 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner. The government lowered the standard for putting people on the list then scoured its files for anyone who qualified. The government will not disclose who is on its list or why someone might have been placed on it.

Among the most significant new standards is that now a person doesn’t have to be considered only a threat to aviation to be placed on the no-fly list. People who are considered a broader threat to domestic or international security or who attended a terror training camp also are included, said a U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.

The Christmas attack led to other changes in how the U.S. assembles its watch list. Intelligence agencies across the government reviewed old files to find people who should have been on the government’s terror watch list all along, plus those who should be added because of the new standards put in place to close security gaps.

The Nigerian man who pleaded guilty in the Christmas 2009 attack over Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was listed in a large U.S. intelligence database that includes partial names and relatives of suspected terrorists. That database is a feeder to the broad terror watch list, of which the no-fly list is a component, but only when there is enough information linking the person to terrorism. Officials believe the U.S. had enough information about Abdulmutallab at the time to put him on the broader terror watch list, which would have helped the intelligence community catch him.

After the Christmas attack, “We learned a lot about the watch-listing process and made strong improvements, which continue to this day,” said Timothy Healy, director of the Terrorist Screening Center, which produces the no-fly list.

As agencies complete the reviews of their files, the pace of growth is expected to slow, the counterterrorism official said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the government on behalf of Americans who believe they’re on the no-fly list and have not been able to travel by air for work or to see family.

“The news that the list is growing tells us that more people’s rights are being violated,” said Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney working for the ACLU’s national security project. “It’s a secret list, and the government puts people on it without any explanation. Citizens have been stranded abroad.”

The government will not tell people whether they’re on the list or why they’re on it, making it impossible for people to defend themselves, Choudhury said. People who complain that they’re unfairly on the no-fly list can submit a letter to the Homeland Security Department, but the only way they’ll know if they’re still on the list is to try to fly again, she said.

While the list is secret, it is subject to continuous review to ensure that the right people are on it and that the ones who shouldn’t be on it are removed, said Martin Reardon, former chief of the Terrorist Screening Operations center and now a vice president with the Soufan Group. If a person is nominated to be on the no-fly list, but there is insufficient information to justify it, the Terrorist Screening Center downgrades the person to a different list, he said.

“You can’t just say: `Here’s a name. Put him on the list.’ You’ve got to have articulable facts,” Reardon said.

On average, there are 1,000 changes to the government’s watch lists each day, most of which involve adding new information about someone on the list.

The no-fly list has swelled to 20,000 people before, such as in 2004. At the time, people like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy were getting stopped before flying — causing constant angst and aggravation for innocent travelers. But much has changed since then.

While thousands more people are on the list, instances of travelers being mistaken for terrorists are down significantly since the government — not the airlines — became responsible for checking the list, Pistole said. Travelers must now provide their full name, birthdate and gender when purchasing an airline ticket so the government can screen them against the terror watch list.

But with the nature of the terrorism threat, it’s not likely that the list will dwindle, even as al-Qaida’s core leadership is defeated, Reardon said.

“I would argue that even if (al-Qaida) as we know it ceased to exist as of tomorrow, other terrorist organizations or lone wolves with both the intent and capability of carrying out attacks against the U.S. would fill the void,” Reardon said. “The consolidated terrorist watch list exists for that very reason.”

Once they are identified and placed on the list, he said, “We have a much greater chance of keeping them from entering the country.”

___

Follow Eileen Sullivan on Twitter at (at)esullivanap.

___

AP Interactive: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/no-fly-list/

Article source: http://us.rd.yahoo.com/dailynews/rss/aptrne/*http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/20120202/ap_tr_ge/us_travel_brief_no_fly_list

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