Report: The flawed processes behind government watchlists

ACLU details the inaccuracy, carelessness and difficulty in finding redress when it comes to U.S. watchlists

By Natasha Lennard
March 14, 2014 8:25PM (UTC)
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Hundreds of thousands of people are listed on the U.S. government's secretive watchlists. The U.S.'s consolidated terrorist watchlist contained approximately 875,000 people as of December 2012. The consequences of having one's name on such a list range from lengthy and invasive security checks at airports, to the inability to fly or obtain a U.S. visa. For both listed foreigners and U.S. citizens, the effects can be ruinous. As such, as the ALCU pointed out in a new report Thursday, "it is vital that if the government blacklists people, the standards it uses are appropriately narrow, the information it relies on is accurate and credible, and the manner in which watchlists are used is consistent with the presumption of innocence and the right to a hearing before punishment — legal principles older than our nation itself."

However, as the civil liberties group's latest findings illustrate,"the government fails these basic tests of fairness" when it comes to amassing and maintaining watchlists. A notable example -- one among many -- that garnered some media attention involved Rahinah Ibrahim, a Stanford Ph.D. student and Malaysian citizen, who was prevented from boarding a flight in San Francisco. Ibrahim was handcuffed (despite being wheelchair-bound at the time), and held in a detention cell for hours in January 2005 based on what turned out to be a bureaucratic error by the FBI that placed her on the No Fly List. As the ACLU reported, "The government fought to avoid correcting the error for
years, even invoking the state secrets privilege in an unsuccessful effort to prevent judicial scrutiny. She was permitted to leave the country, but to this day, she has been barred from returning, even though the government admits that she should not have been placed on the No Fly List."


Such violently uncorrected errors, notes the report, are far from uncommon:

[The government] has placed individuals on watchlists, and left them there for years, as a result of blatant errors. It has expanded its master terrorist watchlist to include as many as a million names, based on information that is often stale, poorly reviewed, or of questionable reliability. It has adopted a standard for inclusion on the master watchlist that gives agencies and analysts near-unfettered discretion. And it has refused to disclose the standards by which it places individuals on other watchlists, such as the No Fly List. Compounding this unfairness is the fact that the “redress” procedures the U.S. government provides for those who have been wrongly or mistakenly included on a watchlist are wholly inadequate.

To illustrate (literally) the problem, the ACLU also Friday put out a comic strip highlighting unfair No Fly List practices (see here). The group also published a Know Your Rights guide for Americans who have concerns about potentially being on such a watchlist.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Aclu National Security No-fly Lists Report Terrorism Watchlists