The amount of names on the government’s secret list of individuals banned from flying to or within the United States has more than doubled in the past year.
The no-fly list skyrocketed from around 10,000 known or suspected terrorists one year ago to about 21,000, according to government figures provided to the Associated Press. 500 of those banned from flying are American citizens.
After the failed Christmas 2009 bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound jetliner, the Obama administration lowered the criteria for putting people on the list, and then scoured its files for anyone who qualified. True to his promise of more government transparency the President will not disclose who is on the list or why someone might be placed on it.
“Both U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities and foreign services continue to identify people who want to cause us harm, particularly in the U.S. and particularly as it relates to aviation,” Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole said in an interview.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who pleaded guilty to the 2009 attack, was listed in a large U.S. intelligence database that included partial names and relatives of suspected terrorists. That database supplies information to the broad terror watch list, of which the no-fly list is a component, but only when there is enough information connecting the person to terrorism. Officials believe the U.S. had enough information at the time to place Abdulmutallab on the broader terror watch list, but have not offered an explanation as to why they did not.
Senior Homeland Security Department official, Caryn Wagner, told senators 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.”
Among the most significant new standard is that a person no longer has to be considered only a threat to aviation to be placed on the no-fly list. People who are considered a threat to domestic or international security or who attended a terror training camp also are included, said a U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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 added.
According to former chief of the Terrorist Screening Operations center and now 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.
“You can’t just say: ‘Here’s a name. Put him on the list.’ You’ve got to have articulable facts,” Reardon said.