ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA – The U.S. government is rapidly expanding the number of names it accepts for inclusion on its terrorist watch list, with more than 1.5 million added in the last five years, according to numbers divulged by the government in a civil lawsuit.
About 99 percent of the names submitted are accepted, leading to criticism that the government is “wildly loose” in its use of the list.
Those included in the Terrorist Screening Database could find themselves on the government’s no-fly list or face additional scrutiny at airports, though only a small percentage of people in the database are actually on the no-fly list.
It has been known for years that the government became more aggressive in nominating people for the watch list following al-Qaida operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed effort to blow up an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
But the numbers disclosed by the government show submissions have snowballed. In fiscal 2009, which ended Sept. 30, 2009, 227,932 names were nominated to the database. In fiscal 2010, which includes the months after the attempted Christmas bombing, nominations rose to 250,847. In fiscal 2012, they surged to 336,712, and in fiscal 2013 — the most recent year provided — nominations jumped to 468,749.
The government disclosed the figures in a civil lawsuit out of Virginia challenging the constitutionality of the no-fly list.
At a hearing Friday, government lawyers urged a judge to dismiss the case, claiming state secrets will be exposed if the case proceeds.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga issued no immediate ruling but expressed deep skepticism of the government’s motion.
Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed the suit on behalf of a northern Virginia man, said the numbers show the government is failing to abide by the standards required for inclusion, which require “a reasonable suspicion to believe that a person is a known or a suspected terrorist.”
“There aren’t 1 million people who are known or suspected terrorists,” Abbas said after the hearing. “This suggests the standard the government is applying is wildly loose.”
A Terrorist Screening Center official declined comment Friday on the numbers.
A counterterrorism official previously told The Associated Press that as of August 2013, there were 700,000 names on the watch list. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive security information.
Counterterrorism officials have said names are routinely removed from the list.
In Friday’s hearing, though, Abbas argued that the process the government uses to evaluate who should be on the list is opaque, and that people who find themselves on it never receive an explanation or a meaningful way to get removed.
Abbas’ client, Gulet Mohamed, 21, of Alexandria, Virginia, has never been told why he is on the list. Mohamed, a naturalized citizen, was stranded in Kuwait in 2011 trying to return to the U.S. after a trip to Yemen and his native Somalia. U.S. authorities allowed Mohamed to fly home after he sued, but the lawsuit challenging the legality of the list remains unresolved. He has never been charged with any sort of terror-related offense, and says his inclusion on the list is a mistake.
Government lawyer Amy Powell told the judge that the government does not seek to invoke its state secrets privilege lightly, but said it would inevitably have to expose its methods and sources if it explained at a public trial why Mohamed was put on the list.
Trenga, though, said a secret filing he received from the government partially explaining its rationale for invoking state secrets was inadequate.
“I didn’t notice any real restraint” in how the government was invoking the privilege, Trenga said. “They were the kinds of things that would not jump out at you as state secrets.”
Earlier this year, Trenga rejected a previous government effort to get the case dismissed.
The Alexandria case follows a ruling last month by a federal judge in Oregon that found people placed on the list have no adequate means to challenge their status. She ordered the government to develop a better means for seeking redress from placement on the list. The government has not yet decided whether to appeal that ruling.