Fact Sheet: Federal Watch Lists
Federal Watch Lists
Are Fraught With Problems
Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Agrees
November 10, 2004
The U.S. government has long developed and maintained various “watch lists”as part of national security and law enforcement efforts. However, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the scope and relevance of these lists has increased exponentially – and with it, serious implications for law-abiding citizens.
MULTIPLE LISTS, THOUSANDS OF NAMES BUT NO COORDINATION OR UNIFORMITY
The Washington Post reported on October 9, 2004 that the “federal government’s ‘no-fly’ list had 16 names on it on Sept. 11, 2001. Today, it has more than 20,000.” The numbers alone cause concern. But the way the lists are maintained and used presents grave challenges to civil liberties of all Americans.
According to a recently issued General Accounting Office report, the government maintains more than a dozen watch lists, including:
Each list is developed according to different criteria, with information from various sources, foreign and domestic, and each provides varying degrees of information. For example, some entries include not only names but also dates of births, associations, birthplaces, and aliases. Others include only a name or even just a first initial and last name. Furthermore, while some lists are available to the public (the SDN list), others are not, such as the No Fly list.
HOMELAND SECURITY INSPECTOR GENERAL CITES CHALLENGES WITH WATCH LISTS
Just released to the public in October 2004 but completed in August of this year, the report was highly critical of the effort to consolidate the many watch lists while also protecting the privacy of U.S. citizens.
“DHS is not playing a lead role in consolidating terrorist watch list information ? In April 2003 the ? GAO reported that nine federal agencies used 12 separate systems and databases, each developed in response to the agencies’ individual legal, cultural, and systems environments ? Specifically, DHS is not carrying out significant responsibilities assigned to it under the Homeland Security Act, i.e. orchestrating the integration of terrorist information and establishing national policies and guidelines governing the use of such information.”
“This situation was complicated by a lack of policies and procedures to govern the sharing, and there was no way of ensuring that consistent data was on each agency’s watch list. The consequence, GAO reported, was ? [an] overly complex, unnecessarily inefficient, and potentially ineffective network ? In the current environment of increased terrorist activity and security awareness, ‘stove piped’ management of critical watch list information is no longer tolerable.”
Offsite Link: Full report (PDF)
PRIVACY CONCERNS SINGLED OUT BY INSPECTOR GENERAL
Of grave concern for many critics of the watch list is the issue of privacy. The IG report, unfortunately, provided little comfort:
NO ONE IS IMMUNE – MEMBERS OF CONGRESS VICTIMS OF NO FLY LIST
Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Congressman Don Young (R-AK) and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) were recently delayed or prevented from boarding their planes because their names reportedly appeared on the No-Fly list.
These high-profile incidents serve to illustrate some of the inherent problems with such lists:
As the scope and importance of watch lists grows and data is increasingly shared among watch lists, the potential for error and abuse increases. For example, the Office of Foreign Assets Control – Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list is filled with common names but little additional information to distinguish an innocent citizen from the intended target of the list. The following names appear on the list:
Additionally, many entries are not complete names or are aliases, such as:
DO THE LISTS MAKE US SAFER?
The ACLU and many other civil liberties organizations have had long-standing concerns about the use of federal watch lists. While the ACLU does not oppose the concept of watch lists per se, the practical use of such tools is fraught with peril for civil liberties. As such, in April 2004, the ACLU filed a nationwide class-action challenge to the government’s “No-Fly” list, arguing that it violates airline passengers’ Constitutional rights to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and to due process of law under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.
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