Declassified FBI Documents Suggest Shoddy Management of "No Fly" List, Fail to Show How Innocent Americans Can Get Names Cleared

December 4, 2003 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – The FBI’s first-ever release of classified documents about the controversial “no fly” terrorist watchlist both reveals some disturbing new information and fails to answer crucial questions about the watchlist’s implications for civil liberties, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said today. Of greatest concern is that the documents are silent on how Americans falsely listed as potential terrorists can clear their names.

“As with all these government watchlists, the concern is that they will be distributed and built without any constraints to ensure that innocent Americans are not wrongly flagged,” said Jayashri Srikantiah, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “This disclosure does nothing whatsoever to allay that fear – and in places gives reason to be more worried about the no-fly list.”

The 94 pages of documents, released in accordance with a Freedom of Information Act request from the ACLU and two Bay Area activists, lack an answer to another crucial question in the debate: whether Americans are being singled out on the list based solely on their First Amendment-protected activity. The many holes in the declassified documents add up to big questions about how well the list is being managed, by whom, and whether it contains clear constraints and mission limitations to ensure that it does not violate Americans’ basic freedoms, the ACLU said.

The disclosures are also silent on how Americans can get their names off the list and whether the FBI tracks “no fly” list matches.

The documents do confirm, however, that not only are the lists being culled together by the “FBI, CIA, and probably other [intelligence] agencies,” but that the list is being disseminated widely in America and overseas to both embassies and the military.

“Particularly given the troubling revelation that the ‘no fly’ list may be distributed internationally and domestically and even to the U.S. military, the public has a right to know whether the list makes us any safer,” Srikantiah said. “It is likely that thousands of innocent passengers are being stopped and questioned at airports across the country because of the list. Will these people face consequences in this country and even abroad because of the ‘no fly’ list?”

The ACLU of Northern California’s analysis, entitled “FBI Documents Fail to Reveal How the ‘No Fly’ List Makes Americans Safer,” concludes: “When potentially thousands of innocent travelers are being subjected to unwarranted searches and detentions because of the list, the public should be able to understand and deliberate on whether the lists improve security or are just a waste of government resources.”

The ACLU of Northern California filed the FOIA and Privacy Act requests on behalf of itself and Bay Area peace activists Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon last year. Earlier that year, both women were told by airline agents at San Francisco International Airport that their names appeared on a secret “no fly” list and were briefly detained by San Francisco Police while their names were checked against a “master” list.

The ACLU’s analysis is online at /node/22707

Selected FBI documents released under the FOIA request are online at /node/22706

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