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Rod Smith

Casinos, Airlines Ordered to Give FBI Information

31 December 2003

LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas hotel operators and airlines serving McCarran International Airport are being required by the FBI to turn over all guest and passenger names and personal information, at least during the holiday period, several sources said Tuesday.

FBI spokesman Todd Palmer confirmed the federal action and said the requirement that the companies surrender customer information is a "normal investigative procedure."

However, Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the Nevada Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the program "clearly is not part of a normal investigation.

"What we seem to be witnessing at this point is a move on the part of the government to keep tabs on what everyone is doing all the time, which has serious civil liberties implications," Lichtenstein said.

"It's one thing to have some specific security concerns and a targeted investigation with some basis in fact, but to ... try to follow everyone goes beyond what is called for."

Hotel operators who asked not to be identified said the information being provided to federal officials includes guest and passenger names, addresses and personal identification information, but not casino records or guest gambling information.

But Palmer said "at this point" all the bureau is getting is guest and passenger names. He also said the program was started about a week ago but the timing varied for different companies.

He said the program was started because the Department of Homeland Security increased the national alert status, and that all cities of 50,000 or more had been told to "what was needed to make sure the cities were safe and secure."

Palmer said the Las Vegas FBI office has not been told what other cities are affected by similar programs.

He said the FBI in Las Vegas is receiving 100 percent cooperation from the gaming companies and airline operators.

Hotel operators said similar information was demanded by federal authorities for about six months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C.

Spokesmen for the casino companies said they agreed unanimously a week ago to comply with the FBI demands except for one company which insisted on receiving "national security letters" before surrendering guest records. Airlines are complying under subpoena from federal authorities.

President Bush signed legislation earlier this month expanding the authority of the bureau and other U.S. authorities conducting counterterrorist intelligence. The law authorizes them to demand records from financial companies including casinos without seeking court approval.

Previously, casino companies generally released such private information only under subpoena. But under the new law, they will be required to release it if national security letters are issued by federal investigators.

The information is being transmitted electronically to the FBI on what could amount to 300,000 visitors to Las Vegas daily.

The program of collecting information on guests and passengers was started following a meeting called by federal and state law enforcement agencies.

Bill Thompson, University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor and casino industry expert, called the federal collection of information an invasion of privacy for Las Vegas visitors. He warned it could discourage visitors from coming to Las Vegas.

"It creates an image like Central America, where (security) people stand around on street corners with their Uzis and it doesn't feel good," he said. "It's going to be cumbersome, bothersome and hurt tourism generally if it persists at all."

Visitors interviewed Tuesday on the Strip were less concerned about the FBI program.

Ronald Cohen of East Windsor, N.J., said he could see the World Trade Center site from his office, and he doesn't worry about privacy issues any more.

"Anything they do is a good thing. I have no problems with it, "he said.

Nathan Irby of Baltimore agreed, saying the program may be a small invasion of privacy, "but it's justified because they have to take every precaution after 9-11."

Still another person agreed.

"In today's world, it makes sense for the FBI to look at these lists, and they'd be crazy if they didn't do it," said Paul Van Oost of Melbourne, Australia.

Representatives of casino operators said they would not comment on any specific security measures taken to protect their guests, but they said the safety of their guests is their top concern.

A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, Christine Turneabe-Connelly, said FBI officials recently subpoenaed airline records for all passengers traveling into or out of Las Vegas from Dec. 22 through Jan. 4.

She was uncertain what specific information the airlines were required to turn over to authorities. But she said her Dallas-based carrier complied with the FBI requests in an effort to protect its passengers' safety.

Officials at America West Airlines, the airport's second-largest carrier, wouldn't comment on whether they have been asked to supply specific information about the airline's Las Vegas operations.

But spokeswoman Janice Monahan said the Tempe, Ariz.-based airline is cooperating with federal anti-terror efforts, including fulfilling government "requests for information" as well as meeting increased security directives.

Earlier this year, Kew Gardens, N.Y.-based JetBlue Airways drew the ire of consumer advocates and attorneys in two states after the discovery that the airline released private passenger information to an Alabama company at the request of the U.S. Department of Defense, USA Today reported in August.

Several class-action lawsuits stemming from that action are pending, JetBlue spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said Tuesday. But he said the federal government is not investigating.

Edmondson-Jones also said he was unaware of the FBI's recent request for information regarding Las Vegas airline passengers.

Gaming Wire writers Chris Jones and Jeff Simpson contributed to this report.