‘US No-Fly list doubles in 1 year’

Last Updated: Thursday, February 2, 2012 - 21:27

Washington: Even as the Obama administration
says it`s close to defeating al Qaeda, the size of the
government`s secret list of suspected terrorists who are
banned from flying to or within the United States has more
than doubled in the past year, a news agency has
learned.

The no-fly list jumped from about 10,000 known or
suspected terrorists one year ago to about 21,000, according
to government figures provided to the agency. Most people on the
list are from other countries; about 500 are Americans.

The flood of new names began after the failed Christmas
2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner. The government
lowered the standard for putting people on the list, and then
scoured its files for anyone who qualified. The government
will not disclose who is on its list or why someone might have
been placed on it.

The surge in the size of the no-fly list comes even as
the US has killed many senior members of al Qaeda. That`s
because the government believes the current terror threat
extends well beyond the group responsible for the September
2001 attacks.

"Both US intelligence and law enforcement communities and
foreign services continue to identify people who want to cause
us harm, particularly in the US and particularly as it relates
to aviation," Transportation Security Administrator John
Pistole said in an interview.

The Nigerian man who pleaded guilty in the Christmas 2009
attack over Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was listed in
a large US intelligence database that includes partial names
and relatives of suspected terrorists. That database is a
feeder to the broad terror watch list, of which the no-fly
list is a component, but only when there is enough information
linking the person to terrorism.

Officials believe the US had enough information about
Abdulmutallab at the time to put him on the broader terror
watch list, which would have helped the intelligence community
catch him.

The Christmas attack led to significant changes in how
the US assembles its watch list. Intelligence agencies across
the government reviewed old files to find people who should
have been on the government`s terror watch list all along,
plus those who should be added because of the new standards
put in place to close security gaps.

A senior Homeland Security Department official, Caryn
Wagner, told senators Tuesday during an oversight hearing, "We
have been able to harness the intelligence from the
intelligence community to inform our instruments to keep
people out at our borders, to make sure that the wrong people
are not getting on airplanes at last points of departure and
to make sure that people who shouldn`t get them are not
receiving immigration benefits from the department."

After the Christmas attack, "We learned a lot about the
watch-listing process and made strong improvements, which
continue to this day," said Timothy Healy, director of the
Terrorist Screening Center, which produces the no-fly list.

Among the most significant new standard is that now a
person doesn`t have to be considered only a threat to aviation
to be placed on the no-fly list.

People who are considered a broader threat to domestic or
international security or who attended a terror training camp
also are included, said a US counterterrorism official who
spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security
matters.

As agencies complete the reviews of their files, the pace
of growth is expected to slow, the counterterrorism official
said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the
government on behalf of Americans who believe they`re on the
no-fly list and have not been able to travel by air for work
or to see family.

"The news that the list is growing tells us that more
people`s rights are being violated," said Nusrat Choudhury, a
staff attorney working for the ACLU`s national security
project.

"It`s a secret list, and the government puts people on it
without any explanation. Citizens have been stranded abroad."

The government will not tell people whether they`re on
the list or why they`re on it, making it impossible for people
to defend themselves, Choudhury said. People who complain that
they`re unfairly on the no-fly list can submit a letter to the
Homeland Security Department, but the only way they`ll know if
they`re still on the list is to try to fly again, she said.

While the list is secret, it is subject to continuous
review to ensure that the right people are on it and that the
ones who shouldn`t be on it are removed, said Martin Reardon,
former chief of the Terrorist Screening Operations center and
now a vice president with the Soufan Group. If a person is
nominated to be on the no-fly list, but there is insufficient
information to justify it, the Terrorist Screening Center
downgrades the person to a different list, he said.

"You can`t just say: `Here`s a name. Put him on the
list.` You`ve got to have articulable facts," Reardon said.
On average, there are 1,000 changes to the government`s watch
lists each day, most of which involve adding new information
about someone on the list.

The no-fly list has swelled to 20,000 people before, such
as in 2004. At the time, people like the late Sen Ted Kennedy
were getting stopped before flying, causing constant angst and
aggravation for innocent travelers. But much has changed since
then.

While thousands more people are on the list, instances of
travelers being mistaken for terrorists are down significantly
since the government, not the airlines, became responsible for
checking the list, Pistole said.

Travelers must now provide their full name, birthdate and
gender when purchasing an airline ticket so the government can
screen them against the terror watch list.

But with the nature of the terrorism threat, it`s not
likely that the list will dwindle, even as al Qaeda`s core
leadership is defeated, Reardon said.

PTI



First Published: Thursday, February 2, 2012 - 21:27

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