WASHINGTON – The Justice Department’s former top criminal prosecutor says the government’s terror watch list likely has caused thousands of innocent Americans to be questioned, searched or otherwise hassled.
Former Assistant Attorney General Jim Robinson would know: he’s one of them.
Robinson joined another mistaken-identity American and the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday to urge fixing the list that’s supposed to identify suspected terrorists.
“It’s a pain in the neck, and significantly interferes with my travel arrangements,” said Robinson, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division during the Clinton administration. He believes his name matches that of someone who was put on the list in early 2005, and is routinely delayed while flying — despite having his own government top-secret security clearances renewed last year.
“I suppose if I were convinced that America is a safer place because I get hassled at the airport, I might put up with it,” Robinson said. “But I doubt it.”
He added: “I expect my story is similar to hundreds of thousands of people who are on this list who find themselves inconvenienced.”
The government calls its watch list one of the most effective tools in its fight against terrorism. It was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to consolidate 12 existing lists and make sure no terrorists slipped through the cracks — whether when entering the country or if otherwise stopped for questioning. Last year, congressional investigators found “general agreement that the watch list has helped to combat terrorism.”
Other audits of the watch list over the last several years, however, have concluded that it has mistakenly flagged innocent people whose names are similar to those on it. More than 30,000 airline passengers had asked the Homeland Security Department to clear their names from the list as of October 2006. Additionally, as many as 20 suspected terrorists were left off the list as of last year due to a technology glitch.
Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center that maintains the list, said the government is working to fix the gaps.
“We strive to have the watch list contain all appropriately suspected terrorists who represent a threat to the U.S., but only appropriately suspected terrorists,” Kolton said.
The ACLU predicted the watch list would include 1 million names as early as Monday. The civil liberties group reached that number by citing the 700,000 records on the watch list as of last September and adding 20,000 names each month, as forecast by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Kolton disputed that number, however, saying that only about 400,000 individuals are on the list — with the rest being records of aliases or other identifiers for those same people. Kolton said that 95 percent of the people on the list are not Americans or legal U.S. residents — and most aren’t even in the country.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigations arm of Congress, similarly concluded last year that the total number of records on the watch list “does not represent the total number of individuals,” saying it contains multiple records for the same person.
For some Americans whose names match those on the list, being delayed or detained for extra screening isn’t just a hassle — it’s frightening.
Chicago-area computer consultant Akif Rahman, who was born in Springfield, Ill., said he has been detained at least seven times after traveling abroad. During one such incident in May, he said, he was held for five hours, shackled to a chair and kicked by a Customs Service agent after being stopped at a U.S. checkpoint on the Canadian border.
“I was fearful for my own safety and that of my family,” said Rahman, who is suing the government to have his identity cleared from the watch list. “I simply could not believe that I, a born U.S. citizen, was going though this experience simply re-entering my own country.”