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:
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
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.