Thursday, August 06, 2009

Taking names... How to be found guilty without ever knowing it.

Shortly after 9/11, a bill was passed in Congress that had the laudable goal of trying to help the federal government find and monitor people who's goal was to commit terrorist attacks within the US or on US interests abroad. But like most things the road to hell was paved with good intentions. The first issue that reared it's head was similar or duplicate names. Mohammed is not exactly an unusual name in that part of the world after all.

Initially this "watch list" was merely passive in nature. Those who found themselves on the list were not barred from flying or buying cars or anything like that, it was merely an intelligence gathering tool, but then it started to morph into something else entirely. First people on the watch list were pulled aside for extra searches and questioning when they took a flight, or were watched closely when they applied for pilot training. Then a subset of the list was designated a "no fly" list for those who would not be allowed to fly on an airplane at all. Then suspected domestic terrorists were added, and then the definition of a suspected terrorist was loosened to include people who attend political rallies or who have purchased guns recently, or are members of political groups, and now, they are asking people to turn in the names of people who disagree with Obama's Health Care Bill, or who are especially vocal at Congressional town hall meetings. People who appear on these lists are routinely denied credit, or the ability to purchase a weapon.

The simple fact of the matter is that once your name appears on one of these lists, you have very little recourse. You are generally not allowed to know you are on such a list (depending on the specific list), and you often have no means of having your name removed if it is on there by mistake (the TSA no fly list is an exception). These lists are not subject to freedom of information act disclosure, nor are they subject to the Privacy Act. Therefore they may keep your information forever. You have now been convicted of a crime and are barred from exercising your constitutional rights without ever facing your accuser or receiving a trial by a jury of your peers.

Now I can certainly see the usefulness of the plan as originally conceived. I am told on deep background that at least two similar pilot training incidents were detected here in Houston alone. But this has simply gone entirely too far. Am I on such a list? Are you? How would you or I know? And if we were to discover that we were, what could we do about it? Not much.


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