Government Admits Giving WatchLists to Private Groups in Lawsuit

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In depositions and in court hearings, government officials had denied until very recently that the watchlist compiled by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center is shared with private entities. At a pretrial hearing in September, government lawyer Dena Roth told U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga that the Terrorist Screening Center “does not work with private partners, and that watchlist status itself … is considered law enforcement sensitive information and is not shared with the public.”

Associated Press; 19 February 2019

On April 5, 2016, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter (CAIR-MI) filed a ‘class action complaint and jury demand’ suit against the top tier directors and operators of the National Security Branch of the FBI, which includes the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) – whose duty is to “identify suspected or potential terrorists.”

The suit was filed in the Alexandria division of the US Eastern District Court of Virginia “where the list is maintained,” Courthouse News had reported at the time.

The suit, which includes 15 named plaintiffs notes “there are thousands upon thousands of potential plaintiffs making it impractical to bring them before the court.””

“Baby Doe,” as he is described in the class action, was 7-months-old “when his boarding pass was first stamped with the ‘SSSS’ designation, indicating that he had been designated as a ‘known or suspected terrorist,’” the complaint states.

The lists include a no-fly list that prevents designees from flying “into, out of, or even through United States airspace,” according to the complaint.

Another component called the “selectee list” meanwhile subjects designees to extra screening at airports and land-border crossings.

Like Baby Doe, people on this list “often find ‘SSSS’ on their boarding passes printed by airline employees which is marked to indicate a passenger’s watch list status to airline employees and screeners.”

“The standards for watch list inclusion do not evince even internal logic,” the complaint states, and persons placed on the list “have no means of removing themselves or challenging the basis for their inclusion.”

Courthouse News; 5 April 2016

A second suit of ‘Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief’ was also filed seeking an unspecified amount of compensation. CAIR-MI “filed both suits with the Washington, D.C.-based Law Office of Gadeir Abbas and the Troy, Mich., firm Akeel & Valentine.”

On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported “the federal government has acknowledged that it shares its terrorist watchlist with more than 1,400 private entities, including hospitals and universities, prompting concerns from civil libertarians that those mistakenly placed on the list could face a wide variety of hassles in their daily lives.”

The watchlist is supposed to include only those who are known or suspected terrorists but contains hundreds of thousands of names. The government’s no-fly list is culled from a small subset of the watchlist.

Critics say that the watchlist is wildly overbroad and mismanaged, and that large numbers of people wrongly included on the list suffer routine difficulties and indignities because of their inclusion.

Associated Press

Despite the governments repeated denials, the district judge in the case Judge Anthony Trenga “ordered the government to be more specific about how it disseminates the watchlist,” saying that plaintiffs “are entitled to the information to try to prove their case that the inclusion on the list caused them to suffer “real world consequences.””

In response to Trenga’s order, TSC Deputy Director of Operations Timothy Groh filed a written statement earlier this month acknowledging that 1,441 private entities have received permission to access the watchlist. Groh says those private entities must be in some way connected to the criminal justice system. He cited police forces at private universities, hospital security staff and private correctional facilities as examples.

It is not clear what restrictions are placed on how private institutions use the list.

“The FBI did not respond to [AP] emails and phone calls seeking comment.”

CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas, who has also filed “a constitutional challenge to the government’s use” of a terrorist watchlist “called the admission shocking,” adding that there was always the suspicion, but they had “no idea the breadth of the dissemination would be so large.”

Now that the government “corroborates” what has been “long suspected,” an “attorney with ACLU’s National Security project” Hugh Handeryside said, “it still leaves unanswered several important questions,” such as more information is needed about “how private entities use the information,” because, he said, “the likelihood of stigma or adverse consequences is increased every time the government shares the list with a private organization, a foreign government or any other agency.”

Abbas said now that the government has disclosed how many private entities receive access to the Terrorist Screening Database, the official name of the watchlist, it now needs to explain exactly which private entities are receiving it and what they’re doing with it. He’s asked a judge to require the government to be more specific.

“A hearing is scheduled for Friday.”

The government keeps secret the “exact number on the list,” but did acknowledge in another lawsuit “it adds hundreds of thousands of names to the list every year,” emphasizing “names are routinely removed from the list.”

“In some quarters,” the AP further notes, “the government has been criticized for failing to widely disseminate the list to private agencies who might need to know about suspected terrorists,” adding that “a 2007 report from a government watchdog criticized the government for just that.”

At the time of the filing in April 2016, CAIR-MI executive director Dawud Walid said at a press conference that their aim was not to “eliminate the watch list completely but rather to have it undergo a “major overhaul,” that “among thousands of Americans ensnared in the government’s bigoted watch list was a 7-month-old baby whose “only crime was that he was born to an American Muslim family.”

“I think the question is, are we going to be selective about this?” Walid said at the time. “Are we following people and placing people on this list who go to KKK meetings, people who go to Donald Trump rallies? Like when we open up and start asking questions about sacrificing civil liberties. What happens is that we as a country end up losing both but who gets affected the most are people of color and minorities. Because at the end of the day we all know that white folks who go to Donald Trump rallies or Ku Klux Klan meetings are not being surveyed and not being put on terrorist watch lists…”

For full reading and full context:

APNewsBreak: Feds share watchlist with 1,400 private groups; AP

Twin Lawsuits Target Terrorist Watch Lists; April 2016; Courthouse News

Lawsuit challenges FBI terror watch list; April 2016; Arkansas Democrat Gazette

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