Over 700,000 people on US watch list: Once you get on, there’s no way off
A report by the New York Times’ Susan Stellin published over the weekend attempted to shine much-deserved light on an otherwise largely unexposed program of federal watch lists, but details about these directories — including the names of individuals on them and what they did to get there — remain as elusive as ever.
More than 12 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, federal agencies continue to keep lists on hand containing names of individuals of interest: people who often end up un-cleared to enter or exit the US due to an array of activity that could be considered suspicious or terrorist-related to government officials.
In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union claimed that an Inspector General of the Department of Justice report found at least 700,000 individual names on the database maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sub-office tasked with overseeing the “single database of identifying information about those known or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activity.” Five years later, that number of suspicious persons is reportedly close to what it was at the time. Half-a-decade down the road, however, Americans and foreign nationals who end up on the government’s radar are offered little chance to find out how they ended there, or even file an appeal.
According to some, that’s just the start of what’s wrong with these lists.
“If you’ve done the paperwork correctly, then you can effectively enter someone onto the watch list,” SUNY Buffalo Law School associate professor Anya Bernstein told Stellin for this weekend’s report. What’s more, though, according to Bernstein, is that “There’s no indication that agencies undertake any kind of regular retrospective review to assess how good they are at predicting the conduct they’re targeting,” suggesting that anyone can be targeted and added to such a list with little oversight to protect them.
“When you have a huge list of people who are likely to commit terrorist acts, it’s easy to think that terrorism is a really big problem and we should be devoting a lot of resources to fighting it,” Bernstein added. With almost no transparency and outrages aplenty, though, she argues that the government’s watch lists are largely flawed and can erroneously ruin an innocent person’s life.
Such is the case with Rahinah Ibrahim, 48-year-old a former Standard University doctoral student who was expected to be in federal court in San Francisco, California Monday morning for the latest hearing in a case that stems from an incident in 2005 that ended with her learning she had been added to a terrorist watch list. Ibrahim was attempting to board a Hawaii-bound plane from San Francisco International Airport in traditional Muslim garb when she was taken into custody and told she had landed herself on a terrorist watch list. Nearly a decade later Ibrahim continues to disavow any connections with terrorism, but the issues surrounding the watch list program has made it seemingly impossible to find out what she did, let alone have her name removed from the list.
“We’ve tried to get discovery into whether our client has been surveilled and have been shut down on that,” Elizabeth Pipkin, a lawyer representing Ms. Ibrahim, added to the Times. “They won’t answer that question for us.”
"She doesn't want this to happen to other people -- to be wrongfully included on these lists that haunt them for years and years," Pipkin said recently to Northern California’s Mercury News.
"No one knows how the targets get on the lists," she said. "The government has never contested this case on the merits. We don't think they have a defense."
But with Monday’s hearing coming nearly a decade after Ibrahim first found herself in trouble, the likelihood of any reform coming soon to the watch list system seems slim-to-none. ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi even told the Times that the system keeping the watch lists in tact seems to be more flawed than the one guarding over terrorist suspects held at America’s military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“People who are accused of being enemy combatants at Guantánamo have the ability to challenge their detention, however imperfect that now is,” Shamsi told Stellin. “It makes no sense that people who have not actually been accused of any wrongdoing can’t challenge.”
A Terrorist Screening Center official reached for comment by the Times claimed that fewer than one percent of those listed on such rosters are US citizens or legal permanent residents, but as Stellin points out, “there is no way to confirm that number.”