Privacy SOS

Are we really safer when watchlists metastasize?

Who knew our country was crawling with terrorists?

According to Reuters, US officials have reported “an average of 55 daily encounters with ‘known or suspected terrorists’ named on government watchlists” – which adds up to some 20,000 encounters a year!  

Among them is an 18-month-old toddler who, along with her parents, was recently kicked off a JetBlue plane because her name was on a “no fly” list.

The “no fly” and “selectee” watch lists which make it difficult for people with certain names to travel or keeps them off planes altogether have been rapidly enlarging ever since the Christmas Day “underwear bomber” plot of December 2009. The number of people who are absolutely barred from flying to or within the United States doubled in 2011 and has now reached 21,000, some 500 of whom are believed to be Americans.  

There seems no end to Watch List Bloat and its potential for damaging lives.   According to ACLU calculations, the FBI-administrated Terrorist Screening Center encompassed a whopping million names before the end of 2008. 

A May 2009 report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General found that an estimated 35% of the 68,889 names being audited –  out of an estimated 1.1 million) – were “outdated” and no longer associated with terrorism cases. People who were under investigation for terrorism never made it onto the list while thousands who were wrongly placed there were not removed in a timely fashion. 

The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General admitted in a September 2009 report that once the FBI puts you in a terrorism database or on a “no fly” or “selectee” list, you may be stuck there for a very long time – possibly forever. The Traveler Regress Inquiry Program (TRIP), set up by DHS in 2007 as a “one stop traveler redress process,” is not a cure, but a bureaucratic dead end. Its “redress solution for most redress-seekers does not positively affect their travel experience.”  Furthermore, “the program does not provide an independent review of redress petitions, but instead submits those petitions for exclusive consideration of offices that are the source of the grievance.”

Will the courts provide redress? The Ninth Circuit of Appeals is currently hearing an ACLU lawsuit brought on behalf of fifteen US citizens and legal residents who are barred from boarding planes and never told why or given a chance to challenge the “evidence” against them. When Chief Judge Alex Kozinsky asked the Justice Department attorney Josh Waldman what he would do if he found himself on a “No Fly” list, the lawyer after some hesitation said he would try the DHS TRIP system.  

And if he gets nowhere? Waldman said he would seek review in a federal appeals court – although the court might not have the authority to do anything about it.  

Metastasizing watch list databases are not just trapping travelers. They are also pumping up the terrorism-industrial complex wherever there are budgets and jobs that need to be justified.    

And so we learn that terrorists have a special affinity for the “Old Dominion” state.  According to a 2009 Terrorism Threat Assessment from the Virginia Fusion Center, “In 2007 at least 414 encounters between suspected al-Qa’ida members and law enforcement or government officials were documented in the Commonwealth” (page 27).  

In addition to al-Qa’ida, there are a wide range of other “radicalizing agents” believed to be on the move in Virginia according to the Threat Assessment  – read about them here.  

You should assume that the nation’s other 73 fusion centers are secretly amassing and sharing similar “threat assessments”: why else has the US spent more than a trillion dollars on “homeland security” in the decade since 9/11?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.