Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Watching those watchlists

Thomas Burke, a lawyer who worked on our lawsuit about the no-fly list, wrote today to let me know that he is now trying to find out what the U.S. government is doing with yet another huge list of "suspected terrorist" names. Assisting the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR), he has sued the Treasury Department for denying access to public records about the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) watchlist of some 6,000 people and entities, mostly overseas, all labelled dangerous suspected terrorists, drug traffickers, and other “specially designated nationals.” LCCR explains what is wrong with the way this list is being used:

An increasing number of private companies, including banks, mortgage companies, car dealerships, health insurers, landlords and employers, screen consumers' names against the OFAC list. Few people in the United States are actually on the list, but sharing a first, last or even middle name with someone on the list can trigger a "false positive" match. Consumers discover the OFAC alert when they are told that they cannot make a purchase, open an account, or do business because their name appears on a terror list.

The OFAC list includes many extremely common Muslim or Latino names.

This is not harmless stuff. An LCCR report available for download here [pdf], describes numerous instances of law abiding people in the U.S with names similar to ones on the OFAC list having trouble with the most ordinary financial transactions: being turned down for a mortgage, refused credit to buy from a used car dealer, kicked out of PayPal, and denied store credit to purchase a treadmill. Some of these people were able to argue their right to purchase eventually, but all were put through the inconvenience and stigma of being falsely labeled "terrorists."

Businesses screen using the OFAC list for two reasons. First, the Treasury threatens stiff fines if they engage in commerce with someone on the list. (But do they really think a foreign terrorist wants to buy a treadmill?) But additionally, the OFAC list, with its thousands of names that partially match innocent people, provides an easy cover for any company or employee wishing to discriminate against people with Muslim or Latino names.

How easy is it to find yourself on the list? Since businesses checking names often accept partial matches, these people could find themselves turned down for purchases (the matching portion of their names is in boldface):
  • Barack Hussein Obama
  • Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi
  • Alberto Gonzales
  • George Lucas
You can check out this government list yourself here. Click on Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN List), select the text version, and use your find function to check your own name.

I did. I could get in trouble (again) for my middle name.

I figured I should also check up on the name of a prominent convicted terrorist we've recently welcomed to this country. I learned that Luis Posada Carriles (an anti-Castro Cuban bomber) did not make the OFAC list. How's that for vigilance at Treasury?

With the spreading use of this list, as with the no fly list, airport "security" theater, and repeated "terror alerts," we are all being conditioned to think of ourselves as endangered mice, not free citizens of a powerful country. This artificially heightened fearfulness is both objectively crazy and awfully convenient for rulers who want us cowed.


Aunt Deb said...

And so what if the terrorist did purchase a treadmill from some little or big company in the US? I think it's really interesting that in this instance our government says it's the responsibility of the company to monitor its actions and curtail those that might endanger others, but in the instance of, say, food safety or occupational safety or environmental safety, this administration consistently passed that responsibility onto the citizen-consumer-worker.

Jane Meyerding said...

Okay, this is a totally different subject, but it's on my mind at the moment. Here in Washington State the clot of bureaucracy charged with revising the rules about who gets to vote cannot get their act together. I am one of many thousands of people waiting to have voting rights restored after felony convictions. Until the board acts, the only route available is to provide abundant proof that you are financially well-off, medically healthy, employed, etc. -- and to allow the state access to all financial and medical records while you're at it. (Since when does one need to be found rich enough to vote????) The good news is that the local ACLU is working hard to keep the pressure on the board. Until recently, they were leading the effort to put pressure on the state legislature, too, but the legislature finished their session without considering the bill (it "died in committee"). Makes me cross!

janinsanfran said...

Janey -- interesting that Washington State is being more recalcitrant about this than some other states, especially since your US Attorney was one of the ones fired by the GOP DOJ for not finding enough "voter fraud." They sure hated that close governor's election.

Your ACLU is reputed to be one of the more effective local ones. I'm going to do some digging, not that I expect to be able to find anything.

Should make you plenty cross. Be well!

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