ACLU Highlights Harm to Real People in Out-of-Control FBI Watch List System; Says Program Eerily Similar to Recent Privacy Invasive Proposals

November 20, 2002 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


WASHINGTON – Responding to a front-page story yesterday in the Wall Street Journal about FBI watch lists that finger innocent people but cannot be recalled or corrected, the American Civil Liberties Union pointed to the harm done to ordinary Americans and expressed concern at the similarities between it and other proposed Bush Administration programs that threaten privacy.

“This article illustrates that when the government begins to gather information without regard for privacy, it will ultimately lose control and ordinary Americans will get hurt,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington National Office. “Getting these rogue programs back in check is like trying to lasso a runaway train.”

At issue is an information-gathering program implemented by the FBI shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Project Lookout,” as it came to be known, widely distributed hastily assembled watch lists, culled together from disparate and ultimately unreliable sources, to private industry. Problems arose when the FBI’s authority over the content of the list withered and it took on a life of its own. “We have now lost control of that list,” said Art Cummings, head of the strategic analysis and warning section of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, to the Journal. “We shouldn’t have had those problems.”

Yet, the ACLU says, as scary as this program might be on its own, it becomes all the more chilling when seen in the context of a discernable shift by the Bush Administration away from mainstream conceptions of the right to privacy and toward a rampant, and reckless, love affair with surveillance.

The Project Lookout debacle, the ACLU said, is a logical extension of unchecked privacy invasion. “The fallout from Project Lookout is real people suffering awful consequences,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. “That kind of outcome is just as inevitable with all the other ill-considered programs we’ve seen coming out of the government lately.” The ACLU cited Operation TIPS – the Justice Department’s plan to recruit a network of informers from Americans whose jobs give them access to private homes – and “Total Information Awareness,” the Pentagon’s plans to create the most extensive surveillance system in history.

The Journal story cites example after example of innocent citizens being labeled potential terrorists by the list and being unable to clear their names. In one instance, two brothers with the unfortunate surname Atta, while successful at removing their name from the FBI’s most recent watch lists, still found themselves identified as potential terrorists on other, outdated lists that continue to circulate widely among corporations and on the Internet.

When the Atta brothers approached the FBI for help, officials told them that the matter was out of their hands. Once these watch lists were in the world, the brothers were told, the Bureau was powerless to do anything.

Indeed, the story about Project Lookout is eerily similar to another story about mysterious “No-Fly Lists” that reportedly bar people from air travel or caused them to be harassed – often for hours – every time they fly. The number of innocent persons identified as potential terrorists on both watch lists suggest that the two lists are cut from the same shoddy cloth. Victims of the no-fly rolls include a nun and a number of peace activists.

The ACLU remained critical of the reckless implementation of these programs, and others like them. “Project Lookout seems to be just another indicator of the general unwillingness of the Bush Administration to respect the most American of ideas: that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you should not come under official scrutiny,” Murphy said. “Big Brother might be clichéd, but we’re now seeing that he lives and can ruin lives.”

The ACLU cited a long list of privacy-leeching programs that seem to indicate a “cult of surveillance” in the current administration. These include:

  • Total Information Awareness – Developing in the Pentagon’s secretive research and development wing, Total Information Awareness is the brainchild of former Reagan National Security Advisor John Poindexter. The Pentagon-funded project aims to create the most expansive electronic surveillance network in human history. It would record and monitor every American’s Internet surfing, reading habits, financial transactions, travel plans and mental health histories in the hope of predicting future behavior. Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire has called the program a “supersnoop’s dream.”
  • Operation TIPS – As envisioned by the Department of Justice, Operation TIPS would have systematically recruited a network of government informants among everyday American workers with easy access to private homes. This army of snoops would have been composed of postal workers, utility technicians and the proverbial “cable guy.” Popular outcry forced the administration to scale back its plans for its corps of what the ACLU called “government-sanctioned peeping Toms” but the government is pressing forward with a more limited version of the scheme.
  • Domestic CIA – Last week, the advisory Gilmore Commission recommended to Congress that it create a intelligence agency similar to the CIA, but for use on American soil. Such an agency would, the ACLU said, inevitably engage in covert activities similar to the smear campaigns waged against political dissidents – most notably the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – by the Hoover-era FBI.
  • Sweeping New Surveillance Powers for the Department of Justice – Earlier this week, the Justice Department gained vast new powers to monitor the lawful activity of Americans. The new powers were granted when a the ultra-secret, espionage-specific Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review ruled that information gathered by warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act could be used in criminal proceedings. Significantly, the Justice Department need only meet a standard far less than probable cause in order to obtain these warrants.

By completing this form, I agree to receive occasional emails per the terms of the ACLU’s privacy policy.

The Latest in National Security

ACLU's Vision

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.

Learn More About National Security

National Security issue image

The ACLU’s National Security Project is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights.