Susan Stellin writes: Governments wade into treacherous waters when they compile lists of people who might cause their countries harm. As fears about Japanese-Americans and Communists have demonstrated in the past, predictions about individual behavior are often inaccurate, the motivations for list-making aren’t always noble and concerns about threats are frequently overblown.
So it might seem that current efforts to identify and track potential terrorists would be approached with caution. Yet the federal government’s main terrorist watch list has grown to at least 700,000 people, with little scrutiny over how the determinations are made or the impact on those marked with the terrorist label.
“If you’ve done the paperwork correctly, then you can effectively enter someone onto the watch list,” said Anya Bernstein, an associate professor at the SUNY Buffalo Law School and author of “The Hidden Costs of Terrorist Watch Lists,” published by the Buffalo Law Review in May. “There’s no indication that agencies undertake any kind of regular retrospective review to assess how good they are at predicting the conduct they’re targeting.”
What’s more, the government refuses to confirm or deny whether someone is on the list, officially called the Terrorist Screening Database, or divulge the criteria used to make the decisions — other than to say the database includes “individuals known or suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism and terrorist activities.”
Even less is known about the secondary watch lists that are derived from the main one, including the no-fly list (used to prevent people from boarding aircraft), the selectee and expanded selectee lists (used to flag travelers for extra screening at airport checkpoints), the TECS database (used to vet people entering or leaving the United States), the Consular Lookout and Support System (used to screen visa applications) and the known or suspected terrorists list (used by law enforcement in routine police encounters).
For people who have landed on these lists, the terrorist designation has been difficult to challenge legally — although that may be about to change. On Monday, a lawsuit brought by a traveler seeking removal of her name from the no-fly list, or at least due process to challenge that list, is going to trial in Federal District Court in San Francisco, after almost eight years of legal wrangling. [Continue reading…]