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October 20, 2009

Failure to Launch: The Terrorist Watchlist

Erich Scherfen was an infantryman in the first Gulf War and then a National Guard helicopter pilot. In total, his career with the U.S. military covered thirteen years. After leaving the military with an honorable discharge, Scherfen became a pilot for the regional airline Colgan Air Inc. Despite his history of exemplary service, Scherfen discovered in 2008 that he was in danger of losing his job because his name appeared on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Terrorist Watchlist. Scherfen had no clue why his name was on the Watchlist, and discovered that there was no system for removing his name. As a result, Scherfen was forced to take the DHS to court in an ongoing bid to clear his name.
Unfortunately, Erich Scherfen’s story is not an unfamiliar one, especially to persons of Middle Eastern descent. Far too many American citizens find themselves on the Watchlist after being incorrectly labeled as terrorists or even victims of mistaken identity. People who are misidentified as terrorists cannot check-in to flights online or use the automated check-in booths. Instead, they must take extra time and have an agent at the ticket counter confirm that they are an average person and not a terrorist, and are also subject to repeated security searches.
On February 4th, 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill allowing people wrongly placed on DHS’s Terrorist Watchlist to file an appeal to have their name removed. The bill, The Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely (FAST) Redress Act of 2009, was introduced by Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) on January 15, 2009. It passed through the House with a vote of 413 – 3. Since that time, the FAST Act has wallowed in legislative limbo.

The purpose of this bill is straightforward: allowing citizens incorrectly placed on the Watchlist to get their names off it. Appellants under the bill will have to prove conclusively that they do not represent a threat to the citizenry of the United States. These safeguards are included in order to ensure that only those citizens misidentified as terrorists are allowed to remove their names, while at the same time protecting the integrity and original intent of the Watchlist.
The Terrorist Watchlist was originally conceived to protect U.S. citizens from those people and groups that seek to do them harm. The Watchlist is now too unwieldy to be truly effective, though, since it already includes over 1.3 million names. If those citizens who are not a threat to the United States were allowed recourse to remove their names, then the list would be streamlined and, therefore, much more effective. The Watchlist is supposed to protect innocent Americans; not to wrongly persecute them.  As Rep. Clarke pointed out, “With so many different names on the list, it is not surprising that every single day, countless Americans are misidentified as terrorists.”
Rep. John Lewis’ (D-GA) inclusion on the terrorist Watchlist is perhaps the most well known story of the Watchlist’s problems. However, current and former members of the Watchlist include: Nelson Mandela, Marine Staff Sergeant Daniel Brown (who is on the list because “gunpowder was detected on his boots, most likely a residue of a previous tour in Iraq”) and the late Senator Ted Kennedy. It took three weeks for Senator Kennedy to have his name removed, and that was only a result of his prominence in government; not because he utilized an official appeals avenue.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has said that “The watchlist is only as good as the information on it.” Rep. Thompson is absolutely correct, and having people who are not terrorists on the list will only continue to degrade the list’s efficacy.
Sure, it seems like common sense to let Americans affected by their name’s inclusion on a massive, secret Terrorist Watchlist to prove that they don’t belong on the list or that they aren’t the same person as the name on the list. The House also voted to give Americans this right in the previous session of Congress, only to see it languish in the Senate’s Commerce Committee. Yet, without a strong champion in the Senate, this bill will die there, and Americans still won’t have that right.

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