Watchlist perpetuates injustice

It’s been revealed that over 1,400 private groups have access to the FBI’s terror watchlist.

March 7, 2019


What you need to know:

Earlier this month, the government admitted that over 1,400 organizations such as hospitals, universities, and other private entities receive access to the “hundreds of thousands of names” on the FBI’s terror watchlist. The revelation came as part of a lawsuit filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on behalf of Muslim plaintiffs, and it confirms something American Muslims have long suspected: namely, that innocent American Muslims are harmed by terror watchlists. Private groups having access to the FBI’s terror watchlist only shows how broadly this harm is distributed.

The details: 

The Muslim plaintiffs allege their placement on the watchlist, among many who are wrongly or dubiously listed as suspected terrorists, has made their lives increasingly more difficult. They cite complications such as travel restrictions, an inability to complete financial transactions or get a job, and include problems with law enforcement. The extension of counterterror operations into the private sector seem to confirm those claims, allowing private institutions like banks, airlines and law-enforcement agencies to use the terror watchlist to impose burdens. It now appears more than likely that many innocent American Muslims are being regarded as terrorists by hospitals who may deny them treatment, universities who may deny them or their children education, or law-enforcement agencies who may subject them or their families to harsher treatment. The only form of redress for these innocent people is an arduous process which often bears no fruit.

There is no justification for extending counterterror operations into the private sector — even if, as Deputy Director of Operations at the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) David Groh contends, groups receiving access to the list are “in some way connected to the criminal justice system.” Any conservative interpretation of “some way connected” would still include private companies like Palantir, whose predictive-policing software and crime-forecasting algorithms neither definitively decrease crime nor escape the built-in biases that would only be exacerbated by the inclusion of a dubious list of innocent people suspected to be terrorists.

Regardless of which and how many groups are granted access, the fact that they do erodes community bonds and makes certain classes of American citizens feel like less of a part of this country’s fabric. It may also limit the chances for those same classes of people to accumulate material resources or access material services and benefits. The government’s long-overdue admission is shocking given the general problems with counterterror surveillance operations. It also begs the question, what else don’t we currently know about government counterterror surveillance measures and their disproportionate impact on the lives of Americans?

We fully support any efforts to have the government divulge a complete accounting of their counterterror surveillance operations, and not simply wait on lawsuits filed by a small slice of the many who are impacted. The Muslim plaintiffs who precipitated this important reveal deserve justice, as do the many who still stand to suffer as a consequence of this damaging public-private partnership.



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